Carrying On (Episode 15 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

In all my years as a football fan, player and manager, I can honestly say I have never seen a goal like this.

As I take a seat about two thirds up the main stand in the Estadio Alfonso Lopez, I wipe the sleep from eyes and observe the sole groundsman prodding away at the pitch. He does his best to keep it in shape but towards the end of the Apetura, it was tearing up and looking a bit worse for wear. A couple months off and it’s done it a world of good. He lifts off his cap, wipes the sweat from his brow and looks over to me with a proud smile radiating from his face.

“Hermoso, Rodrigo! Buen trabajo!” My shout echoes around the stadium as he hold his cap to his chest and takes a dramatic bow.

“Gracias señor Shep. Er, what be the score today?” I hold two fingers up on my right hand and a solitary finger on my left, stifling a laugh at Rodrigo’s broken English sounding somewhat Shakespearean. He gives me a thumbs up before walking down the other end of the pitch. The little conversations like that are the best parts about this job. Joking on with the groundsmen, having a cup of coffee with the kit man. I feel like I’ve been welcomed into Bucaramanga as a community, as a part of the family. Right now, I can’t imagine a time where I want to leave this club but if I keep doing this job as I have been, I can only go so far with them.

Anwways, that’s all hypothetical at the moment. All that matters right now is getting our Clasura campaign off to a good start with a win over Petrolera. I had a bit of a team sheet selection headache as I wanted to feel our strongest possible side to give us the best chance of taking three points but we have another game midweek. If I picked all the starters today, I’d have to pick a full second string team for the Rionegros game, starting a vicious cycle of poorly organised rotation. We have ten games in the next 35 days which is a relentless schedule but after that, we only have nine in the next 91. If we grit our teeth and work our hardest until this time next month, we’ll be plain sailing.

With that in mind, I pick a mixture of starters and bench players. Ramos starts in goal with a back four of Vallecilla, Gonzalez, Torres and Harold Gomez attempting to stop Nelson from being called into action too often. Gabby is captaining the side behind Rovira and Cardenas with Neumann supporting Morison and Romero. I can’t stress how much I’d love to start with a win in front of the home fans and it’s clear that the lads are riled up and raring to go. It’s raining again today, obviously. I’ve been sold a dream with that ‘just 7 days of rain all year’ bullshit. But, my motto is already ringing in my ears. The rain only strengthens the walls of this fortress. Ready yourselves, men. This is just the first grueling battle of a lengthy war.

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What a bloody anti-climax. You’d think that with it being first game of the season, Santander derby and all that jazz, this game would race out the blocks. It’s almost the complete opposite. We are slightly more dominant than Petrolera but there’s no real chances in the first half apart from a wayward Cardenas header about 20 minutes in. Right as the ref checks his watch to check if he can signal the end of the half, Neumann works like a little pitbull to nip away at the ball and win possession. It’s high up the pitch with seven Petrolera’s bodies the wrong side of the ball and he plays Morison a lovely reverse ball to leave him 1-on-1 with the keeper. Steve takes it into the box and hits a shot across his body with his left but Jerez does brilliantly to get a strong right hand to it. It falls for Romero but he has to rush it and skews his half volley a yard over the bar. It was a difficult one to keep down as it had a bit of pace on it so I don’t blame him for missing it.

Things don’t exactly pick up in the second half. Both teams are trying a more direct style with balls over the top but it’s not working for either. Just as we pass the hour mark, Romero is subbed off with Neumann taking his place up front and Salazar coming on as the number 10. That change doesn’t make any impact so 10 minutes later, I sub on Quintero and Rangel for Gomez and Neumann and ask the team to push harder for a goal.

In the 77th minute, there’s finally a bit of action as Harold tussles with Rivera and comes out on top with the ball. He drills it into the feet of Rangel who cushions it back for Rovira before starting his run down the right. Rovira opts for a different pass as he chips a ball over for the run of Salazar. He has a job and a half to do but he times his jump perfectly to connect with a header that loops over the keeper, hits the underside of the crossbar and bounce over the line before spinning back into play. The goal is instantly awarded and there’s some complaints from the away dugout but everybody could see that was over. Think Lampard vs Germany over except this goal is given. The debate will be was it luck or skill. Who knows and who cares?

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We sit deep and hold the ball in the corner for the remaining minutes and hold out for a 1-0 win. It’s not been the best game to watch but we powered though, slowly broke them down and kick-start the Clasura with our first three points. I can’t complain.

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The following day, one of the most unexpected transfers in recent memories is dominating the headlines as Sergio Ramos ends his thirteen year stay at Real Madrid and joins Chelsea for £59’100’000. Not only is that a lot of money for a centre back who’ll be 33 next year but it’s also a transfer that Ramos didn’t need to make. He hasn’t had doubters questioning whether he could hold his own in the Premier League like some players have. He could have happily spent another few years there, retire a legend and become director of football or something. I understand Chelsea will probably be paying him upwards of £350’000 – £400’000 a week but did he really need to cash in on one last paycheck? Either way, I’m sure Chelsea fans won’t be complaining as it’s a brilliant signing so props to Sarri for getting that deal done.

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Now our first away game of the Clasura is against Rionegros Aguilas. We beat them 3-1 in the Apetura at the Estadio Alfonso Lopez and I want a similar result today. I would take three points regardless of scoreline, especially away from home but getting a few goals on the board early doors would be a nice bonus.

Aguirre is in goal and while the centre backs keep their places, Cufre and Rodriguez come into the team with the latter lining up against his parent club. Quintero and Salazar, who was Man of the Match last time out, return to the midfield. Rolls Royce are the driving force up top for the first time this side of the summer. There’s a warm orange sunset peering over the far stand opposite the dugout as the players walk out out the tunnel. It’s a picturesque backdrop for the Estadio Alberto Grisales and hopefully, some of the beauty from the surroundings will transfer onto the pitch in our favour. Come on, Los Leopardos.

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It takes a quarter of an hour for the game to really get started with the first chance comes after a drop kick from the Aguilas keeper is headed back into their half by Gabby in the 17th minute. Romero acrobatically flicks a pass with his instep to Rangel. The Junior loanee almost shoves a ball over his man with the outside of his boot for Salazar to connect sweetly with a volley but it can only wrap round the post into the side netting. It would have been a cracker if he’d found the top left.

In the 32nd minute, a snapshot from Rangel is well saved by Valencia but Viafara is pressured by Romero. Sergio keeps right on him and the wing back’s attempted clearance bounces around and settles kindly for our striker to put a low cross in for his partner up front. Rangel arrives to toe punt goalwards but the keeper always had it covered. About five minutes later, another Valencia kick is won by a Bucaramanga player but Torres’ header is straight to a red shirt. A few passes are completed before their left winger named Hinestroza plays a dreadful pass directly to Rangel’s feet. He’s even surprised by how bad it is as he didn’t have time to prepare and his touch is a bit heavy. He makes up for it by sliding in and weighting a pass for Salazar who bears down on goal before slicing a shot down to the keepers left to give us the lead. It looks like he was trying to find the far corner and scuffed it but I’m sure Salazar won’t admit that.

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At half-time, I make one change with Jose Jaimes coming on for Cardenas. Sherman has been fine but he keeps struggling to win aerial battles over a physically imposing Rionegros midfield whereas Jaimes will struggle to lose them. Otherwise, I ask the team to keep doing what they’re doing as I don’t even think our opponents have had a shot yet. Directly from kick-off, our front three exchange passes fluently. Salazar sends Mosquera with a quick body feint and takes a shot but it’s too central for Valencia who easily catches.

In the 67th minute, I bring off Salazar and Gabby Gomez for Mojica and Neumann after we win a corner. Both of them are quite attacking minded so I tell Quintero and Jaimes to sit back and allow the other four to do any attacking work. The corner is whipped in and met with a lethal header from Quintero but it clips the crossbar before spinning over into the stand behind the goal. It takes anther 15 minutes before we’re attacking again with Mojica bringing down a pacey ping from Jaimes. He sprints straight at the Rionegras defence, pulling out a couple stepovers to lose the first man and chopping a pass with his heel to confuse the second. Rangel taps the ball into the run of Neumann who smashes it low and hard first time but Valencia gets across to push it out for a corner which is a poor one.

There’s one last chance in the first minute of three added on with the defenders ball watching allowing Cufre time a run in behind which Rangel spot. Cufre just beats the keeper to the ball but Valencia manages to save with his trailing arm and seemingly trap the ball between between his wrist and his hip before getting a proper hold of the ball. The game finishes shortly after with the same scoreline and goalscorer as our last. Rangel was the standout player for me today and he’s rightly named Man of the Match. A complete striker’s performance from him, bar a goal of his own. Aguirre only faced one shot all game I can’t even remember it so I would say that domination is an understatement.

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There’s an interesting voicemail on my office phone the next morning from Süper Lig outfit Yeni Malatyaspor. They informally offer £700’000 for James Aguirre which is about £200’000 more than he’s worth according to Ricky. I really toss and turn about whether to take the money and look at signing a younger (and taller) keeper this window but I get back in touch to decline. James is settled here, he’s just signed a deal with the idea of being a first team keeper next season. It would only cause problems if I accepted the offer, regardless of whether he wanted the move.

Jaguares away from home is the next match in our hectic month of August. Last time we played these, it was one of the most boring games of my life in which we won 1-0 thanks to a Romero scrappy goal late on. I’d like a more convincing performance this time round.

Ramos is back in net with Palacios starting next to today’s captain Marlon Torres. Marlon is the future of this club and a captain in the making so we might as well start now and test out his leadership abilities. His namesake Jeferson Torres also starts with the aim of impressing me enough to get his name in the teamsheet more often. Nunez gets his first showing in the Clasura as a striker next to Steve with our only goal scorer Salazar behind them. I want us to start with an attacking mindset in hopes of getting a goal in the first 15-20 minutes. That would allow us to get back playing the counter attacking football we loved so much last year and give us plenty of chances to score on the break.

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12 minutes in, Cufre is making one of his signature runs down the touchline but Jaguares close him down well. He’s forced to lay it back to Jeferson Torres who puts a great cross in for Morison to latch onto but his glancing header skims the far post. We’re talking centimetres away from a world class header. We’re obviously not disheartened as we’re at them again only ten minutes later. Jeferson spreads a pass out to Harold and works the ball into the middle with the help of Quintero and Nunez. The former plays a filthy ‘Thierry Henry’ no look pass through for Salazar to chase at the back post. He hits it hard across the keeper first time and while he’s beat, the crossbar denies him his third goal in as many games. Quintero slides in for the rebound but Elvis Gonzalez clears the danger with a header out of the box.

Or so he thought. Nunez is there to nod it forward for Steve Morison who’s positioned on the edge of the box. Now, the great thing about goals in football, is that there’s such a variety of goals to be appreciated. Headers, low drives, volleys, long shots. In all my years as a football fan, player and manager, I can honestly say I have never seen a goal like this. Steve calmly takes a step back, tracking the ball with his eyes the entire way, and hits it. While the ball is about shin height, he caresses it with his right foot and curls the ball so heavily, I thought he’d fucked it at first glance. But the arc this ball gets brings it back inside the post perfectly to hit the back of the net. Absolutely sublime technique from the 6’2 Welshman. Who would have thought it?

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Jaguares do come right back at us only minutes later as they win a corner after Palacios clears a cross. It’s a fast ball to Córdoba who wiggles away from Salazar to nod a good header towards the far corner but Ramos is equal to it and clutches it firmly away from the goal. The final opportunity of the half comes in the 41st minute when Morison is played in behind by Cardenas and lets it run through his legs to keep the balls momentum. He curves his run back into the middle, holding Roa at arms length but he drags his shot a yard wide of the far post. 1-0 at half-time isn’t exactly bad but we can easily put a few past these. I bring on Gabby for Quintero who really needs a rest.

15 minutes into the second half, I make another change with Andreas replacing Salazar and in the 71st minute, I bring on Vallecilla for Cufre. The second half has been tame in chances but far from it in terms of tackles. While none of our lot have been carded, three of our opponents back four have been cautioned by the referee when Vallecilla takes to the field.

The second half, apart from a few meaty challenges, remains largely uneventful with the game ending in our third consecutive 1-0 victory. I’m happy to be winning obviously but what’s happened to the free-scoring side I had the other side of the summer? We limited Jaguares to just 2 shots all game and we are yet to concede in any of our three games this season. Are we now a defensive team? Am I going to branded as the Liga Aguila’s answer to Tony Pulis?

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So three games, three goals, three great wins. Life in Colombia couldn’t really be going much smoother than it is right now. That’s why when I receive a phone call from the Hungarian FA ring me to query if I’d be open to an interview, I don’t have the same indecisiveness as I did back in April. The Wales offer was a big deal for me but it was too soon. It’s still too soon. I’m flattered that I’m being considered for huge roles like this but I’m not even a year into my role at Bucaramanga. They are entitled to my undivided attention as this team can really achieve something. They are still my main focus and remain so until there’s a piece of silverware in the Bucaramanga trophy cabinet that I can point to and say “that’s my trophy.”

So a message to all international football associations: leave me be.

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First Summer (Episode 14.5: Shep – Mangerial Globetrotter)

Now this man is debatably a footballing icon. He has done everything.

June 13th

It’s been a week since that last gasp goal put my dreams of a first season final to bed. Atletico Nacional did make me smile as they beat Junior 3-1 on aggregate to claim their 17th Primera A title. Even though we ran Junior close, Nacional would have been a harder opponent in my opinion and it’s hard to argue that they aren’t deserved winners. Congrats Nacional.

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Everybody has been given three weeks off. Players, staff, assistant managers. I won’t see them all on the training ground again until the 1st of July. We’ve had a squad meal last night and Ricky comes round every few days for a bit of company but apart from that, I’m my own best company. I’ve even booked myself a short holiday in Cuba for four days next week because this manager stuff is stressful and I deserve a treat.

June 26th

Our first incoming bid of what’s going to be a hectic summer window came in today. Japanese side called Jubilo Iwata playing in the J1 League bid just under £1’500’000 for Neumann. It’s obviously swiftly declined as he’s going to play a huge part in this side next season and develop even further. Andreas just turned 18 while I was on holiday and now he’s independent and isn’t forced to lodge with a family, he asked me to come apartment hunting with him.

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We spent most of the day looking all over the 10 mile vicinity of the stadium before I realised it was right under our noses the whole time. A lovely little Piso 7 flat has been up for rent for a couple weeks. Andreas and me are going to be building buddies. Suck on that, Iwata. I-what-a shame you couldn’t convince him to move. I’ve got to write that one down for when I see Ricky.

July 1st

The first day of the summer transfer window was a beauty. An absolute home run of a day. Perez and Jimenez moved on to pastures new in Germany and Chile retrospectively which loaded our bank balance up. Me and Alvarez finally agree on something: that this team we have right now doesn’t need much tweaking. But the main aim is to prepare for when all these loanees start trickling out the club. So if we don’t need players until the end of the season and don’t have the money to buy any worthwhile additions now, what’s the next best thing to do? Bosman bloody ruling.

You may recall my mention of looking for former Premier League players and convincing them to join a competitive league one last time. No cashing in a big check in China, no sunny, celebrity lifestyle in the MLS. A gritty little challenge that Steve Morison has warmed to with ease. And with Rangel going back to Junior come the new year, we’ll need a quality striker to replace him.

Now when I think of players that I would have loved at Newcastle United in recent years, this guy is up there. Jose Jaimes isn’t gonna be the only 6’4 player in Bucaramanga as we’ve agreed a deal for ex-Southampton striker Graziano Pellè to link up with us in January. He’s agreed to only £15’000 as he wants to be out of the CSL so much and wants a new experience. Well that’s the reason he gives but he’s made about 27 million quid since he joined Shandong in 2016 so money probably isn’t his concern now. However, he does seems really excited about being challenged week in, week out again and I have to admit that I can’t wait to get him into my team. He’ll sign until the end of 2020 by which time he’ll be 35 years old and I imagine he’ll be thinking about retiring. He’ll also get £75’000 as a welcoming present come January 1st which will be just enough to classify as walking around money. But, all of the little details aside. I think this might be the signing of my career. Already.

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July 9th

Mojica came to me in training today and asked where he stands now Perez has gone. I was honest with him and said that I haven’t seen enough from him to impress me. That’s partly down to my reluctance to play him but with Neumann, Salazar and Nunez, it’s hard to fit him in. We’ll have a busy August though where we’ll play eight or nine games so he’ll get a start or two there.

July 13th

Friday the 13th. Spookiest day of the year behind Halloween. It’s a load of rubbish to me but the thought of my players getting swept away from under my feet in a similar way to Pellè? That’s scary. Hence, I spent all day sorting out new deals and contracts for who I felt fit and it was a productive day if I do say so myself. Details below:

New Deals until 31st Dec 2020:

  • James Aguirre (No wage increase and a £7’500 signing on bonus)
  • Harold Gomez (£20 a week wage increase, £6’500 signing on bonus and £3’600 for 10 appearances)
  • Yuber Asprilla (No wage increase, £6’000 signing on bonus and £5’000 for 10 appearances)
  • Jose Jaimes (No wage increase and £7’000 signing on bonus. Release clause removed from contract)

New Deals until 31st Dec 2021:

  • Jeferson Torres (No wage increase, £6’000 signing on bonus. Release clause raised from £530’000 to £1’150’000)

All of those deals not only stop any outgoing transfers I don’t agree with from happening but they make me notice how keen my players are to stay here, under my management. Only one of those players asked for a higher wage and even then, it was a measly £20 increase to round his salary up to an even amount. Yes, they all got bonuses but considering they know that almost £1’000’000 is available, they could have pushed for much higher amounts. I must be doing something right. I guess signing a top notch striker for next season helps too.

July 14th

I’m in disbelief. Following the coup of Graziano Pellé, I decided to have a look into some of the other big names that were plying their trade in China. Demba Ba is deciding to retire there at the end of the season, ex-Inter midfielder Fredy Guarin is entering the last six months of his contract too but he quite snobbishly refuses to negotiate with us. I thought bringing him back to his homeland would be an appealing offer for him but obviously not. But, when I get in touch about another veteran South American midfielder, I didn’t expect a response.

Now this man is debatably a footballing icon. He has done everything. Argentine Primera A and Brasileiro Serie A winner, over 200 appearances for one of the biggest football teams in the world. Two Champions Leagues, a World Cup runner up! I could honestly go on and on because his cabinet is almost neverending but I’ll stop. Javier bloody Mascherano will be a Bucaramanga player next year.

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This deal will shine a blinding light on Bucaramanga and sell a lot of shirts which is always good. His preferred number 14 will even be vacant with Salazar returning to Santa Fe at the end of the season. I feel like we lack a bit of aggression and fire in our side and Javier will do that. He’ll bring a vast wealth of knowledge to the training ground, he’s a player for the likes of Neumann and Jaimes to look up to. Plus, he gets to tick Colombia of his South American career bucket list before hanging up his boots. Bayern Munich might have just splashed out £67’000’000 for Ivan Perisic but this signing is the one turning heads here in Colombia.

26th of July

Mojica has annoyed me. He’s been poor in training and not exactly upped a level since our talk a few weeks ago but he’s still asking for confirmation of game time. Out of frustration, I decide I want him out. It’d only cost me £16’000 to pay him back to Deportivo Cali but we need a replacement lined up before pushing him out the door. I strike a deal with German giants Borussia Dortmund to take 17 year old Spaniard Sergio Gomez on a year long loan. He’s tipped to be one of the best play-makers in the world in the next 10 years so playing a part in his early development is beneficial for both ourselves and Dortmund.

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We agree on a 45/55 wage split but it’s up to Sergio if he wants to join us until next summer. I think he’d be a great little player Dortmund would want getting experience in a competitive league.

27th of July

Sergio turned us down. He didn’t want to leave Europe and be so far from home which is understandable for a lad who can’t even buy a pint yet. However, I thought with Neumann thriving for us, he might be persuaded to take the leap and experience something new.

Alas, there’s much bigger news in the transfer market today as Mauro Icardi joins Liverpool’s array of attacking quality for £81’900’000. You think the extra £100’000 wouldn’t make a difference but I suppose that’s a whole two thirds of his weekly wage. Mane, Salah, Firmino, Shaqiri and now Icardi. I can’t help but picture the impact just one of those would make on the Primera A. A man can dream.

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30th of July

Our first game of the Clausura is just five days away. This summer has flew by. I still want another attacking midfield option to replace potentially homebound Mojica and Eugenio Villalba has found me one. Eugenio has been in Germany over the summer after advising me that 95% of his options in Argentina were vetoed by yours truly and recommended 19 year old Linton Maina from Hannover. Good with the ball, bit of pace about him and plenty of room to improve so he fits the bill. We shook hands on a 40/60 wage split (around £2’400 for us) with Linton deciding whether he wants to join us for the next two years.

31st of July

He doesn’t.

1st of August

Three short days until we host Petrolera and we still haven’t got a deal sorted. Our Bolivian over in Europe has one last option for me in Tashreeq Matthews, a South African playing for the Dortmund reserves. I got in touch with Lucian Favre again and another year long loan is agreed but I’m not holding my breath.

Mexican side Nexeca contacted me to bid £520’000 for Aguirre but it was turned down quickly. He’s one of the last players we can afford to lose right now.

2nd of August

Tashreeq doesn’t join, shock horror. What is it with all these stuck up, European club reserves? In the infamous words of Man United fans everywhere, he’s shite and I didn’t want him anyway. I think the pursuit of a new midfielder is gonna have to stop for now. I should be able to buy one with the funds Alvarez gives me at the start of next season so it’s probably better to wait and splash the cash on a big signing come January.

Looking back at Europe, Radamel Falcao has returned to Madrid in a controversial move to Los Blancos. Real coughed up £35’600’000 for him which is a lot of money for a 32 year old but I can see him fitting into that team nicely. I can imagine his first trip to the renovated Wanda Metropolitano will be a rough one.

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There’s been a lot more press sniffing around compared to the start of the Apetura and considering our first game is against relatively local rivals Alianza Petrolera, there’s been a conference. I gave some motivational words to my boys in front of the media in hopes of getting a fiery derby on Saturday and kicking off the Clasura in style.

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4th of August

Our youth scout Gallardo’s six month plan came to an end yesterday. While I was tempted to send him to Brazil, I keep him in Colombia but have advised him to focus on looking for playmakers specifically for the next nine months. Hopefully, we’ll find a gem in time for the start of next season to save some much needed funding for other areas of the squad. We have a whopping eight games in August but we don’t face any of the big teams like Millonarios, either Cali club or Apetura champions Atletico Nacional. I’m honestly expecting at least 14 points from these games as they are all winnable and we played some amazing football before the summer.

Let’s hope we pick up where we left off today.

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2018 Apetura Semi-Finals (Episode 14 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

To paraphrase Gus Poyet; we need a fucking miracle.

“So Connor, you’re doing a good job so far. Semi-finals of the knockout stages, your signings slotting into the team effortlessly, the young German Andreas Neumann already forcing his way into the first team under your guidance. What’s the plan from here, how far do you think Bucaramanga can go?”

I take a sip of my water before leaning back in the very same booth in which Ryan Giggs offered me the Welsh role just over two months ago.

“Truthfully, there’s still a lot of work to be done. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a perfectionist, or because I want to take away from Andreas or any of the lads. There’s a lot of things behind the scenes that need to be fixed or maybe changed before this club can go up a level.” Aaron Gates nods attentively as a good interviewer should. “There’s contracts to sign, a bunch of the current squad are on loan so replacing them in time for next season will be a struggle but what we have right now is unity and erm, mutual trust between players, manager and the board. That can get you a long way at a football club.”

Gates finishes his scarily fast typing before clearing his throat. “Marvin Vallecilla and Sherman Cardenas have been named in the four man shortlist for the May Player of the Month. This is the fourth time in a row you’ve had a player nominated and the third time Bucaramanga players have taken up half the spots on the list. What’s it like seeing your players be individually recognised not only by being nominated but more often than not, taking home the award?”

“Pride” I instinctively respond. “You feel proud. Even Marvin was surprised he got in there yesterday morning but everybody agrees Sherman is a quality, quality player. Whether it’s Steve who’s took to the climate instantly, Cardenas who has really been a standout player or Gabby who is the best captain you could ask for. Everyone of them deserves it but we are a team. It’s cliche I know but everybody contributes. Sometimes, it feels like we’re a basketball team with a bench that can impact the game just as much as the starting line-up.”

“Well then, there’s only the big question left.” I jokingly roll my eyes and start trying to piece together my reply. “Junior in the semi finals. You’ve already spoke about the Copa Libertadores dream and getting past them would give you a very good chance of getting in there first time of asking. Can you do it?” It’s a question that hangs in the air for a couple seconds prior to my answer.

“Winning or losing isn’t something you can predict safely. All I’ll say is, if you put City in front of us tomorrow; we’d give them a bloody good go.”

An interview with Sky Sports already. How have I got here already? Fair enough, it’s a piece that’s not going to get many clicks but some European exposure might put me on the radar for clubs over there. I have no intentions of leaving Colombia just yet but in a year or two, that could be the spark that lights the fire.

Now, Junior away. I don’t think we had a harder game than when we visited Barranquilla earlier this year. We might have lost 3-1 to Nacional and Huila but that Junior match? It was a proper, gritty battle. I can’t picture it being any easier today either.

Marvin’s nomination for Player of the Month pushes me to include him in our first leg eleven instead of Harold Gomez. Delgado is the man in goal after much internal and external debate. Aguirre is unlucky as he’s probably shown the most promise in goal but Luis will be retiring at the end of the season, this could be the last big match of his career. Quintero returns with Gomez and Cardenas in the midfield. Neumann gets his spot behind the two strikers back while Rolls Royce are up front again. I’m planning on starting Morison and Rangel in the home tie unless we get absolutely thrashed and need lots of goals which is where Romero comes in.

Looking at my lads line-up in front of the packed Junior stadium, I would have loved the safe hands of Ramos as our last line of defence. He played brilliantly on our last visit to Junior but beggars can’t be choosers. And we need to beg Junior to take it easy on us.

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It’s a promising start from us though as we get the first chance of the match. Gomez wins possession on the edge of our box and passes to Quintero. After a quick 1-2 with Romero on the half way line, Cesar’s attempted pass is an awful one that Neumann works hard to toe punt it out wide to Cufre. He tries a first time ball into Quintero behind the last man but the keeper just gets there first half  a second before him to smother the ball. I clap in appreciation, hoping that we can create more strings of play like that.

Over the course of the next half hour, we have next to none of the ball but our midfield are relentless in their pressure. Neumann and Cardenas are running themselves ragged chasing every pass and every poor touch. The minimal possession we get is fashioned into at least half chances so things aren’t all bleak as this is the type of game I expected Junior to give. In the 37th minute, Rangel passes back to Cufre after his options on the near side are closed down. The ball is passed across the pitch until Romero finds Vallecilla on the opposite side. He loses the track of the ball under his feet but baffles the defender in doing so, giving him space to drill a low ball into Neumann who is free from eight yards. He sweeps the side of his right foot to connect with the ball. His shot flies across the face of the keeper and off the inside of the far post before its cleared. I collapse to my knees with my heads in my hands and run them back through my hair as I clamber to my feet. We were inches away from an opener and Andreas was inches away from being a club hero already.

In the 44th minute, the balls on the edge of our D with Gabby and the scorer  of the infamous bicycle kick, Luis Diaz, both trying to hook the ball past the other. The ball bounces off the shin of Diaz and out to Ruiz. He puts a pass in for Barrera to shoot but Torres is across to block brilliantly. As he gets back to his feet with the momentum, the ball ricochets of his knee and falls kindly for Ruiz to shoot. The shot is going straight towards Gonzalez with Delgado directly behind him so it can’t possibly go in. Except it fucking can. Gonzalez throws his right leg forward but the ball glides past his foot, onto his standing leg and past the hopeless Delgado who was expecting a straight forward save to make it 1-0. I could not think of a more demoralising goal to concede right at a more demoralising time. We’ve had the better chances, we were so close to a half time regroup and that’s the shot that goes in. Fucking typical.

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Trying to motivate your team after an event like that is borderline impossible. When you’re down on your luck and nothing is going right, what’s the point of even trying?

“Guys listen” I sigh unable to mask my defeated frown. “I know that not one of can understand a word of what I’m fucking say. Apart from Steve. But even though you can’t understand the words, you can understand the sentiment. This, one fluky shit goal? It’s not the end. Even if we lose this game, there’s a whole ninety minutes of football in our town, in front of our fans. It is not the end. We can easily put one past these and tell Junior to attack us at home which is when we’ll strike. I’m not asking you to win, I’m not telling you to win. I’m begging you, for your own sake, to go out there and give Junior the hardest fourty-five minutes of their stupid fucking lives. This. Is not. The fucking end.”

I turn my assistant. “Exactly that, in Spanish please Ricky. I’ll see you all on the pitch.”

The second half is end to end stuff. Play constantly back and forth, just without any real shots on goal. Dangerous crosses, great build up play, fancy flicks and skills from both teams but it’s like watching 2015 Wilfried Zaha: no end product. In the 70th minute, Asprilla and Rovira replace the shattered Cardenas and Neumann who have been everywhere today and are understandably knackered.

In the 76th minute, Quintero tracks back to clear a cross and Rovira just about gets a pass to Asprilla before being clattered by Pico. The referee correctly plays the advatange as Asprilla surges  into the opposition half. He waits until exactly the right time before playing Romero who had peeled out his man out wide. He’s open to take it into the box as Rafael Perez is nowhere to be seen and I’m almost celebrating as soon as I see his trusty right foot cock back. But, the shot is possibly the worst thing I’ve ever seen. A weak shot attempt, straight at the keeper which is somewhat comically pushed away for a corner. I’ve been giving lectures to Neumann about looking to Romero and Morison for their composure and Sergio fucks that up. Speaking of which, Morison replaces him in preparation for the aerial bombardment coming Junior’s way. Save the day for us, Steve. Please

There’s only two more minutes until the whistle blows and we can take a 1 goal deficit to the fortress of Estadio Alfonso Lopez and really give this lot a game. But when we push too many forward for a corner, my heart begins to sink. We’re caught out and outnumbered as Piedrahita has space to smash a ball down the line for Yony Gonzalez to chase. The tired legs of Gomez and Cufre nip at his heels but they can’t get that vital touch. His cross is deflected off the hip of Gomez straight to an open Luis Diaz at the back post. My stomach nearly drops out of my arse as he looks destined to score from 4-5 yards max but his half volley hits the cross bar. The ball bounces up into the air and Dairin can’t get there first. Sebastian Hernandez arrives to head into an empty net with the sea of red and white shirts erupting in jubilation. I squat down and hold my head in my hands. I can’t bloody believe we’ve been caught out this late on. We could have worked with a respectable 1-0, that’s only one goal to score and we’re right back in it. I’m angry, I’m upset. I’m heartbroken.

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The last three or four minutes we go all out to try and get would be a crucial away goal but the game ends 2-0 meaning things look very bleak for the second leg. We can play the best football of our lives in a few days time but, to paraphrase Gus Poyet; we need a fucking miracle.

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In the other tie, Deportivo Cali bested Atletico Nacional 2-1 but that away goal could be vital for Nacional to keep their hopes alive. The bookies favourites for the final tie since Day 1 was a Junior/Nacional clash and, if I was allowed, I’d put a tenner on it myself.

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To pile on top of the low feeling surrounding the club over the last couple days, Millonarios striker Gabriel Hauche is named the May Player of the Month over Cardenas and Vallecilla. Congrats to him but fuck me, we could do with a boost. Training is almost silent apart from the sounds of balls, nets and the occasional shout from myself asking for communication. I’m fighting for a lost cause but we can really do it if they just believe in themselves.

Now my eleven for the second leg has a few of changes. My philosophy is there’s nothing to lose. Hardly anyone expects us to pull this back so putting in some bench and rotation players gives the first team players a rest in case we do get through. Plus, some players could work their way into a spot in the final team if they perform well and get us through.

Aguirre is in goal today with Palacios and Torres in the middle of Gomez and Rodriguez. Rovira replaces our captain as Gabby was too tired to play a full game. Cardenas and Quintero remain with Salazar in front. Rangel and captain for the day Steve Morison are up top. Romero is ready to come off the bench with Jose Jaimes also on the bench if we need height late into the game. Neumann’s available to come on and make an impact too. I can’t muster a encouraging team talk as much as I want to but the players know how important this game is. Everybody does. Sometimes things are best left unsaid. And even though I haven’t said it, we’re get one huge task on our hands.

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In the 18th minute, Torres comes in with a great slide tackle to stop a Junior counter after a corner. Quintero reads the throw in and manages to cut it out before finding Morison. He flicks it to Rangel and makes the run for the one-two. Our number 9 puts a perfectly weighted ball into the box that catches Avila out, leaving Morison to lash it past the keeper into the far side of the goal. The crowd jumps up and begins celebrating but Steve picks up the ball and runs back to halfway line. That’s one of the two we need with over an hour of football left to play. Game on Junior. game on.

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About 10 minutes after our goal, we hit Junior quickly on the break. Our boys pass it around with urgnecy and accuracy until Rodriguez is chasing after a Rovira ball down the right with only three Junior players back. Salazar turns on the jets and sprints until he’s got a yard on his man. He let’s the ball roll across his body before finessing to his right but Viera parries with great reflexes. The ball falls for Rangel on the volley at a tight angle and while he hits across enough to avoid the near post and side netting, it flies right across the face of goal and out for a throw in on the other side.

The rest of the half is Junior being cautious with their possession, wanting to get in at half time for a regroup and they do a good job of keeping us at bay. We have really battered them as they seemed so nervy and scared to play out from the back for the first half an hour but they are growing into the game. I don’t really want to change anything but Quintero is tired and on a yellow card so Jaimes comes in for the last 45 mins. Looking around the squad, I can see smiles and genuine feelings of belief so my talk is short and sweet. These are here for the taking, a spot in the final is here for the taking. We really can do this.

It only takes five minute for that belief to come into play as some gorgeous first time passes leaves Gomez open on the right wing. He looks up before whipping a deep cross to an open Steve Morison from 6 yards out. Before you can say ‘surely that’s a goal’, he skies the volley so far over the crossbar, it lands outside the stadium grounds. Come on Steve, you’re way better than that. Just after the hour mark, Neumann comes on for Cardenas with Salazar dropping back in his place. Gabby has a word with me as he wants to come on as captain but we need an attacking input and Neumann is exactly that.

Not even two minutes have passed when Andreas already justifies his introduction as he gets the ball with a yard of space and hits a stinging shot at goal which Viera has to parry out for a corner. It’s a floating cross to the edge where Jaimes heads it towards goal but the keeper does well to block Rangel’s attempt from close range.

In the 72nd minute, I run out of patience and try something a bit unorthodox. I bring on Gabby for Rangel and play Jaimes as a striker. Romero looks at me like he’s going to slice me open and gut me as he sees Jose wanders up the pitch next to Morison but with two huge heads to aim for, we can cause more problems for them. Shortly after, Operation: Spearhead makes a grand/desperate return with Neumann and Salazar playing as the wide men providing for Jaimes and Morison.

We have not stopped launching balls into their box which are being scrambled, booted and headed clear by red and white shirts. Junior eventually take the ball into our half with a minute of normal time left and Piedrahita is on hand to collect the loose ball after a Salazar tackle. He passes it forward to Hernandez who completely mugs off Torres with a silky stepover and drag move. Palacios darts over to cover but it’s already too late. The man who scored the late goal in Barranquilla is the provider in Bucaramanga as he paces a delightful low ball across the box to Bocanegra who taps past a flailing Aguirre. The knife was already in my heart but it’s been twisted, yanked out and thrusted back in again.

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We do have a late chance with a Morison header but it rattles the woodwork in what surely would have only been a constellation goal anyway. I wince in preparation for the onslaught of boos to ring around me but instead, the whistle is greeted by applause. I shake the hand of Julio Comesana in pure shock of the reaction. But it’s crystal clear. These fans didn’t expect anything, hell they didn’t even expect us to get into the top eight. They’re just happy to be here and to have witnessed a team try their hardest to pull a shock result out of thin air. We might have lost 3-1 on aggregate but of those three goals, were they really preventable? If that fluky goal in the first leg hadn’t deflected past Delgado, would they have scored the other two goals after we were forced to push to score ourselves?

It’s hard to avoid feeling hard done by or pity ourselves in this situation but we outplayed them today. They scored with their only shot on target, they scraped through by the skin of their teeth. I complete my lap of the pitch with the players and do one more with Ricardo by my side once the players have all entered the tunnel. As we approach the dugout ourselves, Ricky leans into my ear.

“Same again next time boss?” I turn to him and smirk before wrapping my arm round his shoulder.

“No Gervais. We win it next time.”

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2018 Apetura Quarter-Finals (Episode 13 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: rain is not a sign.

I crack open another bottle of beer and listen to the cap fall onto the tiles of my balcony. I take a huge swig before taking a seat in front of the evening sun setting behind the Estadio Alfonso Lopez. As initially hesitant as I was, I have to admit that Ricardo knows a view when he sees one. As crazy and as foreign as this job has been over the last six months, this is my safe space, this is my sanctuary.

Just as I’m thinking of his potential career path as an estate agent, he joins me outside and opens a bottle of his own. He jestures towards me and nods his head in acknowledgement before taking his first drink.

“Gervais, where do you think I can go from here?” He chokes on his drink a little and looks at me with a panicked expression. “No no, not like right now mate.” I chuckle. “I mean, in general. I love working here, I love the club, I love this bloody view. Just look at it!” I fling my arms outwards in a dramatic fashion, letting them slowly recoil to my armrests. “I don’t know, I just don’t see how I can do this, drink a beer on my sun-covered balcony with no interruptions anywhere else.” I turn to Ricardo, hoping for some form of guidance or interpretation I hadn’t thought of but he just shrugs. Not so differently to how he shrugged when Ruiz scored that sensational bicycle kick for Junior all that time ago. I shrug back and turn my attention to the thin archway of sun still visible over the top of the stadium. Maybe just shrugging is the answer. It doesn’t need an answer yet, I don’t need to worry about that right now. The only thing I have to worry about right is picking a team to face Millonarios tomorrow.

Before I detail the dilemmas and thought processes behind my team, Chilean side San Luis de Quillota have been in touch to pay Juan Jimenez out of his contract by offering all £540’000 of his release clause. I really hope he agrees to personal terms as he’s only 24 and needs game time which he’s not going to get here. Also, we need all the money we can get coming into the Clasura.

Now onto the team sheet. The only remotely easy choices were Ramos in goal, Quintero in midfield and our captain. The rest of the eleven were troublesome to pick but I think that this team can get the job done. I think.

Rodriguez is unlucky to miss out as Cufre starts at left back but the Argentinean has been outstanding in recent weeks. Gonzalez and Marlon Torres are our centre backs with Harold Gomez retaining his place on the right hand side. Gabby enforces in front of the back four with Cardenas and Quintero either side of him. Both have been quality over the last couple months but Quintero was a definite choice due to his physicality and contributions at both ends. Sherman is more of an Ozil, a luxury player if you will. Neumann starts in the middle of a wealth of experience with Morison and Romero in front of him. It’s a big, big ask for him to start this game and Nunez or Salazar could have easily came in but I want him to show what he can do today.

Today is the most nervous I’ve felt for any game of football by a country mile but I need to look calm and command my troops. If they sense that I’m not confident, they won’t be confident and the one thing we’ve had all season is the preemptive belief we can beat anybody. I’d happily take a replay of our score draw back to Bucaramanga but as long as we get that away goal on the board, we’ll be in a good position to push on at home. Once I finish my team-talk and the deafening roar of 36’000 Millionarios fans lingers outside the changing rooms, I order my men to march out there and do me proud. Here we go.

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Understandably, the first quarter of an hour is a cagey affair with a few dangerous tackles and cautious spells of play but it doesn’t take too long for the game to turn on it’s head. A Ramos’ goal kick is headed to Romero by Morison. Steve’s pass back is cut out but Cardenas pounces to play a delightful reverse ball for Neumann who’s completely free on goal. I’m holding my breath, flashbacks of his attempts against Equidad racing through my mind, as he runs into the box and calmly slots a left footed shot under Farinez’s foot and into the bottom right corner. I run out of my dugout and spring as high as I can, releasing an uppercut at the peak which Anthony Joshua would be proud of. If he ever could score his first goal in professional football, it would be right now. You beautiful German bastard. 1-0 Bucaramanga.

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After the goal, we’re immediately on the back foot. The words ‘holding on’ could easily be applied. Both sides do have the occasional half chance but the back lines stand strong and limited anything clear cut. In the second minute of added time, we win a corner which is taken by Cardenas. It’s a deep one that’s headed back across goal by Gonzalez to Morison who does brilliantly to aim a header of his own to the top left but the keeper leaps across goal to save. Millonarios are lucky as the man on the near post wasn’t tall enough to reach that and it was a certain goal otherwise. A blue shirt hammers the ball into the air and the ref brings a pretty mute first half to a close. We’re 1-0 up however so trying to alter a winning formula seems counter intuitive so we jog out with an unchanged side and an unchanged mindset

Millonarios come out and really throw bodies at us early in the second half. In the 50th minute, Barreto architects a move around our right hand side before getting a shot away but Ramos is equal to it. Not even 10 minutes later, a tight passing play from Millonarios out wide ends up at Barreto’s feet again. The wingers swings a shot in and really gets Ramos working a sweat but it hits the side netting. Close one to say the least.

We come back with consecutive chances of own shortly after however as some one touch passing in the 63rd minute allows Quintero to play Harold Gomez in behind. He looks up, spots Cardenas completely free at the back post and manages to pick him out with a lovely cross. Cardenas hits is after controlling but Farinez yanks it out of the air with lightning quick speed. A world class save to be fair to him. We’re not disheartened by the cat-like reflexex of their goalie though, especially Andreas Neumann. He bombs back to cover for a seemingly absent midfield and puts in a solid last ditch tackle but the referee calls it back for a foul as Romero is played 1-on-1. I start my rant but stop myself and signal Salazar to replace the youngster. He gets a hug and a pat on the back from myself and every member of our bench as he grabs his Bucaramanga jacket. Finally off the mark which means I can be smug as I like when I next see Alvarez.

In the 80th minute, Salazar works hard to intercept a pass and play a neat 1-2 with the captain. Morison collects possession and plays Romero through on the spin. Sergio puts his laces well and truly through the ball but subsequently, accuracy is sacrificed as it’s a few yards away from threatening Farinez. Rodriguez and Jaimes come on to help us sit back and defend our one goal lead and they do so perfectly. The referee’s whistle is a welcome sound that echoes around an almost silent Estadio El Campin. We take our away goal advantage back home with Neumann’s first goal of many the difference today. There’s only two words to describe how I feel: fucking buzzing.

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We were actually the only away side to score in the first leg of fixtures with Junior and Nacional taking 1-0 victories on the road while Deportivo Cali are probably planning for the semis after thrashing Independiente Medellin 3-0 in front of their home fans. Obviously, crazier things have happened but I cannot see that Deportivo defence conceding multiple goals if I’m honest.

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Jimenez has agreed terms with San Luis over in Chile and seems pretty excited to move over there. He won’t be getting any more game time with us unless a plague with a lust for first team midfielders kills off Gabby, Cesar, Rovira and Jaimes so it’s nice to see him further his career elsewhere. The best part is another £375’000 will be put into my hands when July 1st rolls around which means just under a million pounds total will be coming into the club. This is more than enough to tie down the players we need to with new contracts and maybe even dip our toes into the transfer market. In my spare time, I’ve been doing some digging and making some calls about the availability of ex-Premier League players. If we get ourselves into the Copa Libertadores, I bet a few big names could be persuaded to have their swansong, their last hoorah with the Bucaramanga boys. With all this money coming in, some more high profile and high earning players can be added to the shortlist under the bracket of ‘Realistic(?)’.

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We only train for half a day in between the first and second leg. I don’t want to over-work anyone before a crucial game. Quintero gives us all a scare when he has issues with his knee in training but luckily, it’s just bruised. He won’t be 100% fit for the reverse Millonarios fixture but he’ll be 100% if we advance.

With that in mind, my starting eleven has a few changes. Ramos keeps his place in goal but Rodriguez replaces Harold Gomez on the right. Marlon Torres is also dropped for Palacios. Jose Jaimes is in for Quintero with Rovira the midfield option on the bench. Salazar starts behind Rolls Royce. You might question why I’d drop Neumann after he’s finally got a goal under his belt but the lad’s only 17, he isn’t at peak physical form yet. I want him fit for the semis, if we get through of course, so he’s not even in the matchday squad..

It’s yet another rainy day in Bucaramanga which makes me question the yearly forecast I looked at in January. There’s already been 7 days worth of rain and we’re only at the back end of May. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: rain is not a sign. It’s actually when we play some of our best football so let’s hope today isn’t an anomaly. Semi-finals, here we come.

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The entire first half is a touch and go affair. Neither team wants to commit which obviously suits us with the goal lead but I can’t help but feel uneasy whenever the ball enters on own half. There’s not a chance worth mentioning until the first minute of added time when we win a corner which Gomez takes. The cross is headed out to Cardenas who volleys over his shoulder to Salazar. Kevin chips it in for Rangel to head up into the air. Farinez is too way indecisive and stutters between claiming the ball and staying on his line. He opts for the latter which allows Jaimes to run in and volley from point blank range but it’s straight into the keepers chest. The half ends immediately after and I imagine Farinez is going to on the wrong end of a bollocking for that. Our changing room is quite the contrast as we’re all happy and confident we can see this game out.

In the 52nd minute, a series of backheels and fancy passes leaves Gabby Gomez open to hit a thunderbolt from 20 yards towards goal but the keeper gets down with urgency to push it onto the post. He really stung the palms with that effort. Five minutes later, I make a double substitution with Nunez and Rovira coming on for Jaimes and Salazar.

In the 68th minute, a Cufre cross is deflected out for a corner so I decide to use my final sub with Steve Morison replacing Romero. The corner comes in and Gonzalez and Eliser Quinones battle with our man emerging victorious. It falls a metre behind Nunez but he does well to run back and strike on the turn. Matias de los Santos blocks on the line, the ball bobbles up for Morison to direct a shot through the legs of Duque and into the back of the net. It’s a scrappy goal, it’s an ugly goal but honestly, who the fuck cares? We can finally breath and relax with a two goal lead on aggregate but we can’t just switch off. Props to Morison for making an impact and scoring with his first touch but just cause one cloud has floated away, it doesn’t mean that plenty aren’t still lingering overhead.

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With 10 minutes left, I switch us to a 4-5-1 and ask the team to sit back until full time but my Bucaramanga team don’t listen all the time. Sometimes for the better. In the 84th minute, Rovira receives the ball in the middle and has all the time in the world to spot Cardenas’ run down the right hand side. Sherman pulls out a skillful little turn and finesses the ball into the mixer. Rovira continued his run all the way into the box and surprises everybody in the Alfonso Lopez with an exquisite header across goal as he’s falling back that loops straight into the top right corner. All I can say is wow. A technically beautiful goal to confirm our progression into the semis.

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Millonarios try their best to get anything, even a constellation goal, but we hold out and the full time whistle sparks pandemonium inside the Estadio Alfonso Lopez. Wild celebrations all around us, the team taking a lap or two of the pitch to clap the fans and sing the chants. And I can’t stop smiling from ear-to-ear.

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The other ties threw up some intriguing results. Nacional advanced after beating Santa Fe 2-0 in their own back yard, meaning they won 3-0 on aggregate. Deportivo Cali and Independiente Medellin finished as a 1-1 draw which obviously wasn’t enough for to overturn Cali’s 3-0 win a few days prior. Once Caldas did manage to pull off a surprise victory against Junior and were heading for the semis until heartbreak struck in the 80th minute. Junior pulled one back and even though they won, Junior advanced on away goals. Junior advanced to play us in the semis. Oh boy.

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While I believe that this Bucaramanga side can beat anybody put in front of them, I can’t help but recall to our game against Junior months ago in which we had to hold on for dear life to scrape a draw. Ironically, we’ll play at their place first meaning the decider will be in front of the Los Leopardos faithful but how much can a 12th man do if we’re already 3-0 down on aggregate?

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To make my worries even more evident, Ramos decides that this is the best time to sprain his knee. He comes to collect a cross in an exercise and lands awkwardly. The physios tell me that Nelson’s Apetura season is over as he will be out for around 3 weeks. Aguirre and Delgado are in the room at the time and I instantly snap to them. My eyes dart between them in a suggestive manner as one of them is going to have to step up to the plate and prove their capable. In the semi-finals against arguably the best team in Columbia. No pressure lads.

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On a High? (Episode 12 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

I tell the lads to throw the kitchen sink at them. And that’s exactly what they do.

“You’re having on Gervais, you’re having me on.” I say with puzzled intonation. Ricardo laughs and holds his hands up in a surrending motion.

“Shep, I would not lie to you. This is how it works, I cannot believe you didn’t know this until now!” He’s got a point because neither can I. The revelation that the knockout stages are not randomly drawn out of a hat is news to me. I know teachers used to say never trust Wikipedia but how many times had it done me right, how many times had it lead me down the right path? Our last away game and penultimate game of the Apetura is Millionarios at the Estadio El Campin which is far from an easy game. This update to my knowledge makes this game so much more important.

“So Ricky” I sigh. “Unless we lose both our of games left, Millonarios will be our opponents in the quarters.” Ricky nods. “For fuck sake. We better get ourselves prepared then.”

I was expecting to have a bit of rotation but as this game has a new level of importance, a strong team is needed. Rolls Royce are leading the line again while Torres and Palacios start as partners for the first time in recent memory. The rest of the side our strongest available.

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Millonarios hold the majority of the ball for the first twenty minutes but we’re to happy to sit back and defend. We hit them on the counter in the 22nd minute when Rangel plays a lovely ball to the opposite side for Harold Gomez who passes it first time into Quintero. He tries to backheel it for the 1-2 but Dominguez blocks. Cesar reacts quickly to drag the away, pull out a couple stepovers and set himself on his left but the shot is way too central and the keeper catches.

35 minutes in, a poor pass from our captain means Millonarios can push forward. The first attack is stopped by a great Cardenas slide tackle but the loose ball falls to Carrillo. He passes it up to Rojas who hits a stinging shot towards our goal but Ramos flings a hand out to his left to push out for a corner. It’s lifted into the front post for Ovelar who plants a perfect header to the near top corner but Ramos denies again with a outrageous reflex save. There’s only one more moment of note in the first half when Cufre is played down the left as the fourth official holds the added minutes above his head. Two Millonarios come over to cover so he cuts back and lofts a ball to Quintero. He nods it down to Cardenas who catches the ball just after the bounce with a sweet volley that unfortunately skews a few yards wide. The attempt alone deserves respect but the first half finishes 0-0 and if the second half were to finish 0-0, I’d be happy.

In the 53rd minute, Romero drags out wide to receive a pass and gives it back to our vocal point this game in Quintero. He strokes a pass out for Rangel who lightly flicks it on for Cardenas. He touches and shoots with his left foot but the shot can only dent the far post. In the 70th minute, I make a rare triple substitution with Nunez, Jaimes and Rodriguez taking the places of Salazar, Quintero and Harold Gomez.

In the 83rd minute, Jair Palacios is in space after taking on Jaimes and slides a ball to David Silva. He plays a pass that his namesake would be proud of into Ovelar who hits a shot that perfectly fits the gap between Ramos’ fingertips and the near post to make it 1-0. Nelson is just centimeters away from getting any touch on it and with less than 10 minutes left, I tell the lads to throw the kitchen sink at them. And that’s exactly what they do.

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We are relentlessly passing around the blue shirts, working it wide and trying anything we can to draw us level. There’s only 3 minutes of added time but we’re into the fourth minute when Romero spreads it out to Nunez. He chests it down and holds before playing the overlapping Cufre. Braian crosses as he’s level with the 18 yard box and what a cross it is. It’s Benjamin Mendy-esque as it’s powerful and curling, straight to the back post where Romero flings himself towards it… AND SCORES! Elation sweeps over my body and spreads the away following opposite me. Sergio connects with a volley that must be five foot in the air and it flies straight over the head of Farinez before he can think about saving it. Romero shushes the crowd before sliding on his arse and being mobbed by players and manager alike. What a moment.

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Millonarios take kick-off but only a few passes are played before the referee calls time and confirms our point. We played really well today and to leave empty handed would have been a poor reflection of our performance. Cardenas and Cufre particularly linked up well down the left side and this was undoubtedly the wing back’s best game since we splashed out for him in January. He is named Man of the Match and rightly so but of course, I have to tip my hat to Romero who saved the day.

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Taking into results elsewhere, our draw with Millionarios mean we are guaranteed to play them in the quarter-finals. Essentially rendered our final game of the season pointless. Well if we don’t win, there’s a chance we will drop to 5th and play at home first but in all honestly, I’d rather play away from home first. Because of this, I take the advice of Ricardo and Alvarez and take a short holiday home and leave Ricardo in charge for our final home game against Medellin. I need some time out to relax before the stress of the knockouts arrive so all I ask him of Ricky is for him to field a younger side and give some fringe players a game.

I manage to find a stream of the game when I’m home and spend my Saturday evening assessing how well my assistant manager can… well manage. In the 13th minute, a goal from Rovira of all people gives us the lead and we hold on until a couple minutes before half time, the recently cautioned Ricaurte draws Medellin level with a lovely distance strike. In the 65th minute, he picks up his second yellow for a bad tackle on Neumann but straight from our free kick, they counter and Blanco scores to give Medellin the lead. Ricardo doesn’t bring on Rangel to try and add some more physical presence which is a bold move but it pays off as Steve Morison powers home a header in the 87th minute to make it 2-2 and salvage a point.

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Luckily for Medellin, that single point was enough to get them into 7th place. Unluckily for them however, this means they’ll face Deportivo Cali over two legs. Millonarios won their final game and jump above us which schedules another visit to Estadio El Campin first. I can’t help but recall when I spoke about Millionarios and said ‘Anything we can get against these is a bonus.’ That statement still stands.

League toppers Junior face Once Caldas while league favourite Atletico Nacional, who finished 3rd, play Santa Fe who had a late surge into 6th place. All in all, some decent games to be had with our game against Millonarios and Independiente Medellin against Deportivo Cali looking like the tastier ties of the bunch.

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Reflecting back for the first time on the Apetura, we picked up 37 out of a possible 57 points and suffered just two losses, one of which was against the league favourites. We more than held our own against some of the bigger teams and while I really couldn’t guess how our quarter-final ties will go, it’s been an amazing start to my professional managerial career where I’ve exceeded my own expectations. I smile as I settle back into my seat and pull down my eye mask for the duration of my flight back to Colombia. Visions of Andreas Neumann setting up Steve Morison for the late winner and Gabby Gomez lifting the Apetura trophy flash through my head. I never thought I’d say this while on an identical flight to one I irrationally jumped on half a year ago; but I cannot wait to be home.

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Los Leopardos (Episode 11 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

Like a pride, ready to hunt down a fresh herd of buffalo that dared to stop at our watering hole.

I can’t bloody believe it. How have we bottled this? A nine point cushion with four games left and we threw it all away. Boos ring around Estadio Alfonso Lopez as Medellin applaud their small corner of away fans. I try to walk towards the tunnel to escape the judging glares but my feet physically won’t move. I’m forced to be jeered by the club I’d forced to love me. Rain spits down onto me with disrespect as I catch the eye of Oscar Alvarez, smoke visibly rising from his ears. I wince in preparation for the bollocking of a lifetime in front of 27’000 disparaging Bucaramanga fans. Oscar inhales, points his finger and begins.

As soon as the first boom of his thick accented voice echoes round the stadium, I shoot up out of bed dripping in sweat. Thank fuck, it was just a dream. I check my phone and see I have a text from Andreas asking to start against Envigado tomorrow. I drop him a text saying he was in the eleven anyways and get out of bed an hour earlier than planned.

Fresh from a 4-1 defeat and with only one victory to their name, Envigado are the first hurdle in our last sprint towards the knockouts. A win would secure a place in the top eight bar a miracle of goal scoring proportions and while it’s an important game, I want to field a side of younger/fringe players.

Aguirre is in goal and it’s extremely reassuring to have someone of his quality as our third choice. I wasn’t keen when I first saw him due to his height but he’s had great showings when he’s been in the side. Quinones comes in next to Gonzalez with Jeferson Torres and Asprilla coming into the midfield. As previously mentioned, Andreas Neumann will be getting his first start next to Romero. That does mean we have no real height up front which is something we’ve become used to so the message will be to get it and keep it on the ground. Romero has a decent vertical and can get up there if needed but Rangel and Jaimes are on the bench in case we need some heads to aim for late on. Jose Fellow Englishman George Saunders is in the middle of the park for our opponents today and I have a good chat with him before kick off. It feels strange talking to a London lad in the centre of Columbia but alas, the focus is three points. And we need them now more than ever.

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This game is looking like a slow burner as the first 15 minutes are a tad hesitant but the first opportunity is one of our own. We switch the play to Vallecilla who brings it down nicely before threading a pass into Neumann. He twists in and out a couple times before managing to get a ball central but Cardenas’ header is easily held by the backtracking Londono. It’s almost half time before the next real chance arrives. Envigado push forward with speed and Lemus puts a ball down the wing for Rubio to chase. Asprilla is covering but even he isn’t fast enough to track back and stop a first time cross. It lands at Moreno’s feet who wrong-foots Gomez before blasting home at the near post. Quinones did fly in with an attempt to block but he’s half a second late. 1-0 Envigado.

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We come ever so close to bringing it level before half time however as a game of head tennis between Jeferson Torres and Cardenas is continued over to Vallecilla. His first time half volley cross is deep and Torres wins the header but it bounces off a defender for a corner. Romero manages to lose his marker with a run through the pack but Arrieta is on the front post to get just enough of a touch to direct it onto the crossbar. It’s 1-1 if he isn’t there but we go in 1-0 down at the break. Neumann’s pace and wide support runs have been our best option and I sense we can easily get back into this so I refrain from making any changes.

It takes twenty minutes but my hunch was correct as after a long period of pressure, we win a corner. Salazar comes on for a creative spark and plays a part instantaneously. The corner is very poor and heading away from goal but Kevin puts it back into the mixer with a delicate chip. Gonzalez heads it on to Quintero who scissor kicks the ball down past the keeper from 6 yards. I don’t celebrate however as I scream out instructions with the hopes of capitalising and getting a winner.

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In the 73rd minute, the ball is worked out to Torres who puts a waist height cross in for Neumann to meet on the volley but he can’t wrap his foot round it enough and it’s a few yards wide. It’s his last action of the game as Rangel and Rodriguez replace him and Harold Gomez. Fabio is thrown straight in at the deep end as Torres and Quintero play it between each other before picking out Cardenas. A tasty heel flick leaves Rodriguez open and while his first time shot is powerful and heading for the far bottom corner, Londono does very well to drop low and push it away.

The last 10 minutes are painful to watch as it’s a game of pinball with no real football and the game ends in a 1-1 draw. We’ve been wasteful today and should have won this game against an under-performing side. Neumann looked promising today with his support play however and to get anything from a game when you’re down at half time is a plus. Mixed bag of a result.

*Meta-Note: Forgot to screen capture the result of this game, apologies!*

While we being held to a point, 9th place Tolimas picked up three points. This does mean they’ve gained some ground on us but unless we lose all three of our games and they win all three of theirs, we’ve done enough to get through.

I can’t help but feel sorry for Jhon Perez. He’s got the move he wanted, I’d told him he was starting against La Equidad but he’s only went and broke his ankle in training. The doctors predict he’ll be fit again just in time for his move to Germany but it’ll take him all of pre-season to build back up his fitness and state his case before the season starts.

Before the game against La Equidad, their manager, Luis Fernando Suarez, makes a remark to the press about Gabby Gomez being an emotional player who is ‘perceived as ill disciplined’. It absolutely reeks of reverse psychology so I come out and heap praise of our captain for his style of play. The following day, press show up at the training grounds in what’s becoming a monthly visit. Sherman Cardenas picks up the Player of the Month award that alluded him last month, That’s three on the bounce but who’s really counting, right?

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This is a nothing game for our opponents as they are 13th and the complete mirror of ourselves. While we are 99.9% confirmed to be in the Apetura play-offs, they are 99.9% confirmed not to be as they are 9 points away. This could be dangerous as when you have nothing to play for, that’s the best time to play. To try something new and different. Speaking of which…

Operation Z:Day is back! It’s the exact same shape, no tweaks, no differences apart from the personnel. Ramos returns along with Marlon Torres and Gabby Gomez. Jaimes is the man in the middle of our diagonal midfield as I think he’s the most capable player we have to play that role. Neumann is the attacking midfielder and he’s been told to play close to Quintero. Nunez is on the right with Morison the lone striker. It’s really pissing down in Bogota today but it’s not a sign okay. Operation Z:Day is going to emerge triumphant today.

It’s hard to articulate excitement in a foreign language. Trying to encourage a bunch of Spanish speaking footballers to get stuck in and play for the fans, stuff that rolls of the tongue in the dressing rooms of England. I rack my brain for a solution in front of a patiently waiting squad. Until it hits me.

“Los Leopardos!” I exclaim, startling a few of the lads closer to me. “Tu ere Los Leopardos, somos Los Leopardos!” I notice a few of the younger lads stifle a laugh as I frantically tap the badge, similar to Ricardo before the Leones game. “Feroz, implacable leopardos.” I stutter on my words trying to think of the translation for the conjunctive before saying it English.

“But, hoy… somos Leones!” Now I don’t know why but my instinct tells me the best thing to do is to roar. I roar the loudest fucking roar of my life and wave my arms upwards to jesture them to join. One by one, the sound grows until we sound like a pride, ready to hunt down a fresh herd of buffalo that dared to stop at our watering hole. I clap my hands and smack all of them on the back as we continue to roar down the tunnel and out onto the pitch. Let’s try this again shall we?

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5 minutes in, Zapata uses his first touch to flick the ball past Rodriguez and holds him at arms length while running half of the pitch. His low cross is struck beautifully by an unmarked Cabezas but he rattles the crossbar and Gomez clears before any scraps can be taken by the Equidad attackers. We’ve been massively let off there.

It’s only 10 minutes before we get a brilliant chance of our own with Neumann dropping deep to work a ball out to Gomez. It’s then on to Nunez who turns inside and passes to Morison. He lets it run through his legs to a wide open Neumann on the edge of the box but his shot is a poor one that loops over the bar. It was on his weaker foot to be fair but I’ve seen him do much better with his left in training. We attack again in the 28th minute when a Quintero ball across goal is just collected in time before Morison clatters into him. Steve gets a verbal warning but it was a matter of milliseconds between smashing into the keeper and tapping it into the net.

In the 39th minute, we finally break the deadlock after breaking down an Equidad attacks and pumping it up-field as quick as possible. Morison plays a lofted through ball over for Neumann to chase and the young German really has to use all of his blistering pace to keep it in play. He pulls out a stepover and fakes onto his left foot, allowing him to whip an inch perfect cross onto the head of Quintero who gets his second goal in as many games. I give Andreas a big thumbs up as that move was dead without his dedication.

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A minute before half time, Equidad are again lacking in defensive numbers as Quintero uses the outside of his boot to curve a pass into the feet of Neumann. A couple heavy touches help him to lose his man and he is clear through on goal, he has to score. But of course, he drags it wide. There’s not a drop of composure whatsoever in this kid. Romero, Morison and Rangel would have all scored that. He needs to work on his finishing so his case for a starting spot over them is valid. Half-time shortly follows and I give him a pat on the back as he’s done everything else right today. The entire team has actually but a second goal would make me a lot more comfortable.

The first half hour of the second half isn’t even worth mentioing apart from a few substitutions. On the hour mark, Rovira comes on for Jaimes and 10 minutes later, Mojica replaces the goalscorer Quintero. Mojica is involved within a few minutes of stepping on the pitch as he intercepts a sloppy Equidad pass and moves it up to Neumann. He plays a good ball behind for Morison who still has a lot to do. He shields the ball from two defenders before cutting it back to a wide open Neumann. His eyes light up, my arms involuntarily start to rise as he swings his right peg back… and slices it 3, maybe 4 yards wide. It’s the final straw in what’s been his best yet most frustrating showing in a Bucaramanga shirt to date as Cardenas comes on as my final change.

In the 82nd minute, our opponents finally decide to switch on and some quality passing draws a foul from Mojica just past the halfway line. Zapata floats a delicious ball in for De Alba to flick towards the bottom right but Ramos does excellently to save the initial header and follow up by smothering the rebound. He’s basically been a statue all game so well done to him for staying alert.

In the final minute of added time, we win a late corner which Gabby Gomez takes. Instead of playing it short and holding it until the whistle, he puts a great cross in which Morison meets with a bullet header. The keeper flaps at it and while he’s beaten, the crossbar denies Morison as it bounces onto the line and out of the box. Plenty think the score is 2-0 but the ref makes a point of letting the throw in being taken to show the crowd before calling time. Neumann picks up his first ever MOTM performance and while it’s thoroughly deserved, the three chances he got to score were golden and he didn’t even hit the target with any of them. He really needs to work on keeping his head and at least hitting the target.

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I have a voicemail on my office phone the next morning from Danish side Hobro IK reminding me that Jose Jaimes is still on the loan list and that they’d like to take him for a year. Following his recent emergence into the side, I kindly decline and take him off the list while putting Juan Jimenez up for sale. He’s only played a handful of minutes but hasn’t really impressed me at all. With Jaimes and Jeferson Torres being much better options to fall back on, it’s hard to justify his place in the squad. He does have a release clause of £540’000 in his contract but I’d imagine a figure around £450’000 would be a more likely offer for his services.

If he is shipped off, it would be give us some much appreciated funding before the summer transfer window. While incoming transfers are something we may be able to look into, we need to sort out new contracts for Aguirre, Harold Gomez and Asprilla who are key players with only months left on their contracts. Gonzalez and Jaimes could also do with new deals to take away, or at least raise, their release clauses too.

However, back to on the pitch matters. That win finally lets us breath that anticipated sigh of relief as we are mathematically unable to drop below 8th place. It’s in good timing too as our remaining two fixtures are Millonarios away followed by Independiente Medellin at home. The latter are just two points away from dropping out so if they need a result to confirm their place in the knockouts, it could be a fiery game.

Regardless, we’ve weathered the storm and my goal for the Apetura has been achieved with two weeks to spare. While I want to make some rotations and allow some of the less frequent players to shine, I don’t want us to roll over and accept defeat now we’re in the clear. Bucaramanga are not that type of team. Especially my Bucaramanga.

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Public Introduction (Episode 10 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

The full time whistle puts them out of their misery before long. Poor bastards.

Steve knows. I had to tell someone and he’s Welsh, he would appreciate it. He makes a couple jokes about giving him another few caps before retirement but he seems to agree that I’ve made the right choice. I’m still somewhat shell-shocked after being offered the Wales job but they wanted me to leave Bucaramanga in order to take it. In all honestly, I would have took it out of impulse if I could keep my role in Colombia but it would be unfair for everyone involved. I’d be overworked, Bucaramanga wouldn’t be my main focus and the Welsh national team would suffer because of my heart remaining in South America.

To lighten things up, we had two nominations for the March Player of the Month with Sherman Cardenas and Steve Morison making up half of the four man shortlist but it’s the latter who wins the award. Between me and Ricardo, we think Cardenas or even Jose Jaimes are more deserving of the award but any praise directed towards a signing I made is welcome.

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America de Cali are the team to awake us from our gameless slumber and they couldn’t have a more average start. 3 wins, 3 losses and 6 draws puts them firmly in mid-table but considering they are only 5 points away from the top eight and 9 points from ourselves, they’ve be desperate for a win today.

I make the big call of giving Delgado a go in goal. At the end of the day, he does very well in training and has a wealth of experience so he’s due a good game at some point. Marlon Torres and Gonzalez are our two men in front of him and our best midfield plays in front of them. Player of the Month Morison partners Romero up top with both of them currently firing on all cylinders.

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It only takes a couple minutes for us to set the pace of the game when some great build up play allows Romero the space to turn inside and chip a forward ball for Morison into the area. He outleaps Hector Quinones but the ironically named Neto reacts well to save down to his right. We manage to break the deadlock before the 10 minute mark however as we pass it around a high pressing Cali in the 8th minute. Romero times a run to perfection and collects an equally perfect through ball from Morison before whipping a shot round the goalkeeper to make it 1-0.

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We slow down the game to counter the high pressing approach and really dominate the game. Gaps all over the pitch allow Bucaramanga shirts to drop in and keep possession. In the 32nd minute, Quintero takes advantage of a gap down the Cali left side and sets himself for a powerful strike from 25 yards but it’s pushed away for a throw in. The throw is worked back into the middle where Romero Cruyff turns on the edge before shooting but it’s a yard or two wide of the post. Five minutes pass before we’re attacking again when Gomez is released down the touchline. He curls a ball on behind for Romero who uses a heavy touch to leave the chasing defenders in the dust. He looks up and tries to square for Morison but Zapata slides in to intercept. The ball bounces up off his shin to Rodriguez arriving at the back post but he can’t manage to loop his header the right side of the crossbar. A stressful swing at goal in added time from Mosquera is their first shot all game which highlights how well we’ve played this game.

The first 10 minutes of the second half look like it’s going to be a much harder affair with Cali seemingly ditching the pressing mindset. We manage to win a corner though which Cardenas drills into the mixer. Romero rises like a salmon and flicks a gorgeous header over the helpless onlookers that clips the inside of the far post before going in. Truly breathtaking brace from our top scorer.

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With 25 minutes left, Cufre and Nunez take to the field with Fabio and Salazar coming off. It only takes a few minutes for both substitutes to be involved in our third goal that puts the nail in the coffin. Cufre cuts in front of a Cali attacker to steal possession and passes it forward to Nunez. A cheeky heel chop finds it’s way to Romero who is now part of the 2 on 2 with Morison making a run to his left. Sergio finds the pass and Steve runs it to the edge of the box before leathering it across goal and into the top right. It’s a lovely finish as he really hit across the ball with some force. From that point on, we sit back and watched a deflated, under-performing team try to find some light in a dark, dark tunnel. I do feel sorry for them and the full time whistle puts them out of their misery before long. Poor bastards.

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In exciting news, I’m finally involved in my first national press conference ahead of our game with Alianza Petrolera. There’s a bit of a rivalry with between us and I have to dodge a few questions that are obvious traps to try and snare me into insulting our opponents. I mainly try to heap praise on my boys whenever possible and things are pretty standard until I drop a little bit of a surprise.

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In what I’m sure is an unprecedented move, I announce the first team contract of Andreas Neumann. Cameras flash widely as I speak about how this boy is the future and tell them to remember the name. Andreas is going to be a bloody superstar.

Now Neumann originally wanted to take the number 28 but for a youth academy graduate, that’s still a pretty low number. I might sound like a madman but hear me out. How many young lads get their first contract, a decent low squad number and think they’ve already made it? The answer is no youth player of mine. I want my youth players to remain grounded, earn their place in the team and earn their squad number.

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To clarify, any academy graduate will not be allowed to sport any number under 40 in their first season. Andreas takes the number 44 for his first season. One thing I’d never noticed previously is that he plays with a blue tape wrapped round his wrist. The reason behind it isn’t medical however as he simply loves Jamie Vardy. He watched him lead Leicester to the title a few years ago and wearing the tape round his right wrist makes him feel like he can play like he did that season. Sounds like bollocks to me but if it wins us the league, I can’t complain. I decide to make the light blue tape the staple of my youth players. Some might not like it but fuck it, I’m the manager.

There’s plenty of rotations in our line up for Petrolera. Ramos is back in goal and Torres is the only man to keep his place in the defence. Jaimes, Rovira and Perez come into midfield with our captain resting at home. Neumann is on the bench with Cardenas voted by the squad as captain for the day. Torres has a few votes but the lads seem happy to let him lead from the midfield today.

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We’re in for much tougher game today it seems. Both teams seem to cancel each other out until the 19th minute when we try to break down the far side but are can’t work it into the box. Vallecilla passes back which kickstarts a string of passes across the box allowing Perez to lay off Cufre from a tight angle. His attempt is a decent one that the keeper can only push out for a corner but the corner comes to nothing.

In the 26th minute, Petrolera put a nice move together with Arias jinking past both Jaimes and Cardenas before passing it into the box for Rivera. His low ball in is vitally cut out by Torres but it falls kindly to Henao. I duck my head expecting the Estadio Daniel Villa Zapata to erupt but his shot is blocked brilliantly by Torres again before Palacios boots it clear. Only a few minutes later, I’m treated to another great display of defensive dedication. A cross is put into the front post after a deflection off Jaimes but Vallecilla leaps into the air and basically folds himself in half to boot clear over his head. I’m in awe at how he even managed to reach that. All to avoid conceding a corner.

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Half time comes and goes without event and when the first 20 minutes of the second half have been eerily silent, I give the nod to the subs bench. Quintero comes in for Jaimes as a better ball playing option while Neumann replaces Perez. He can play in attacking midfield but I drop Romero back to accommodate for Andreas and allow him to play up front.

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He does make a bit of an impact and drops deep to try make things happen but the Petrolera defence stands strong. In the 80th minute, I bring on Gomez for a drained Cufre. Quintero picks up a knock as Gomez is warming up but give me thumbs up to signal he can carry on so I let him. I can feel Romero’s stare burning into the back of my skull as I walk back to my seat.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any other clear changes and the game ends 0-0. My first goal-less game as Bucaramanga manager which is a feat in itself. I know South Americans are known for their high intensity, high scoring football but a bizarre statistic nonetheless.

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Obviously, our 0-0 wasn’t the headline grabber. It was never going to be in the weekend of the ‘Valle del Cauca’ derby. Deportivo Cali vs America de Cali. In current form, a Deportivo win was expected but they absolutely romped their local rivals. Jose Sand took home the match ball and set up another goal in a 5-0 victory for Los Verdiblancos.

Hoping for a 5-0 win of our own, our next opponents are 2004 Copa Libertadores winners Once Caldas. They’re only three points behind us so a win would actually take them above us on goal difference and with the teams around us playing bottom of the table teams, a loss really isn’t an option today.

With that in mind, Cufre and Rodriguez are either side of Gonzalez and Torres and they have full license to bomb forward and support the attacks. Gomez is back captaining the side with Rovira playing over Quintero. Nunez is behind Morison and Romero with Andreas Neumann on the bench again.

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Straight from kick off, we pass it around with a bit of pace until Romero backheels a pass into Nunez. He sets himself and hits an bullet from 20 yards but it skims the outside of the post. Good start.

It takes another 10 minutes before we break again. This time, Cufre is played down the line and his low cross cut out by Perea. His attempted clearance is smacked directly off Morison’s arse and falls kindly for Romero but his shot is blocked by Correa. It spins towards Cardenas on the edge who has his bite of the apple but he slices across the ball and it skews a yard or two wide. On the half hour mark, we finally get the breakthrough when a quick counter is worked up to Morison. The Caldas line is a bit too high and allows Romero to run in behind, chasing after Steve’s through ball. He nods it down in front of him before hitting a goal of the season contender, a half volley from just outside the box that swerves inwards to hit the top left corner. Sergio Romero, take a bow.

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We keep the game in the midfield until the break and my half-time talk is a quick one. I’m slowly getting to grips with Spanish and luckily, most of our first half performances are positive so rehashing the same few lines is an option I’ve utlitised fully. Shortly after the restart, Torres sets Cufre on his way from the back. He puts an early cross into the box where Romero stretches to push the ball towards the bottom right with his studs but Cuadrado gets down rapdily to push away with his right hand.

In the 57th minute, Neumann replaces Nunez as the number 10 and it only takes him five minutes to make an impact. After a series of failed attempts to enter the Caldas box, we finally get through when Romero squeezes a pass through to Neumann. He fakes a pass of his own before cutting back towards goal and shooting but his effort is plucked out the air with relative ease by the goalkeeper.

With 20 minutes to go, Quintero and Vallecilla come on to prepare for a late push from Caldas but the latter ends up playing a huge part in our second. In the 82nd minute, he uses his pace to set into the space down the near side. He drills a lovely low ball into the box. Gabby skips over the ball which allows Romero to smash home from 12 yards out. Not only is it his brace but it’s also his 10th goal in the league which will put him just one goal behind Junior’s Teofilo Gutierrez, assuming he doesn’t score again later today.

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The final chance of the game comes three minutes from normal time when Caldas are pushing as high as possible. Morison drags the ball away from one before weighting a pass between Perea and Correa. Neumann seems to shift up a gear and turns on the burners. Despite his 10 yard disadvanatage, Andreas busts his gut to get there first and shoulder away Correa to leave himself 1-on-1 as he enters the box. I run out of the dug-out in anticipation, he swings his right foot back to strike… a couple yards wide. He collapses to his knees and slides with his hands on his head. It would have been a beauty of a first goal but his eyes lit up too early and he rushed his shot. It’s still a promising moment I’ll point out to Alvarez in our next meeting. The game does finish 2-0 and it’s our best display in a long time. Utter domination of the highest manner.

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Steve Morison comes to me the day after to thank me for his game time as it’s kept his mind clear from any worry about adjusting and whether it was a risk worth taking. I thank him back for his performances and ask him to keep it up.

With our latest three points, we have solidified our 4th place position with 3 points either side of us. While we’re only five points from the top spot, the main talking point is that we are a whole 9 points away from dropping out of the knockout spots with only 4 games left. That all means a win against 19th place, lowest scoring side in the league Envigado next week would 99% guarantee us a place in the top eight. I can’t bloody wait.

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Three Weeks (Mini-sode 9.5 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

It would have to be behind the backs of Bucaramanga.

As I take the first sip of my tea since entering what’s become know as my booth in Señora Bucaramanga, I look back on the last three weeks. Upon reflection, one thing is clear; A lot can happen in three weeks. Whether you plan for a lot to happen is a different kettle of fish but 21 days can throw up a ton of surprises. The first week is relatively uneventful. The standard training, meeting and sleeping routine that has become so familiar to me. But when Pierre informs me that the Peruvian Football Federation are rumoured to be interested in an interview, it takes me aback. It seems way too quick to consider international management. Whether’s that a credit to Pierre’s abilities as a bloody good agent or a sign of the FPF’s desperation, who knows but I have to admit it’s flattering to see my job so far being recognised on such a scale.

A pale, bearded bloke with a embroidered cap walks into the restaurant and looks around frantically until he catches my eye. He smiles with a scent of relief before walking over, taking off his cap and taking a place across the booth from myself. We must stick out like a sore thumb.

“I was starting to think this was all a prank.” I laugh as he orders his coffee. “So, what’s the offer?”

Week 2 was a bit more hectic. I spent a few days training directly with Andreas Neumann, our youth player. He’s really got an eye for a goal and while we’re both a little impatient to get him involved in the first team, he’s bound to the youth training facilities in a bid to prove me right to Alvarez. Passing drills and dribbling exercises to develop his play-making skills are in hopes he can play as a number 9 or a number 10. I can’t wait to get him involved in a couple weeks time.

Just as I pushed him and his exaggerated movement to the back of my mind, Pierre showed up at my door again with something that completely blew me away. An international representative wanting to meet for an interview. But it wasn’t Peru. It was a much, much bigger deal with all respect to Peru. Even if I wasn’t fully interested, I couldn’t turn a chance like this down. I told Pierre to set up an interview but they would have to come to me and it would have to be behind the backs of Bucaramanga. I’ve spent the last few months building back the board’s trust and winning over the changing room and if they caught wind I was sniffing around another job, that’d royally fuck everything up.

“I can’t do it anymore because of the expectation on my shoulders but you could. A left wing appointment who comes in and shakes it up, makes some changes! So what do you think?” He leans back into the booth, patting his lips with a napkin.

“It sounds amazing, it sounds, really really good actually. But…” I stop to assess his facial expression change. “I just couldn’t leave these guys now. I’m really loving it here and it’d be harder to leave this job than start a new one.”

There’s a bit of an awkward silence and I can imagine he’s a bit pissed off. I’ve made him fly all this way for basically nothing. He finishes the rest of his coffee, shakes my hand and turns to walk away before I call after him.

“Er Ryan mate?” He turns round with a defeated look on his face, the Welsh badge almost protecting his chest like a miniature shield.

“If I could take your job and keep my own, I would. I just think international management isn’t for me yet. It’s, too soon you know?” He sympathetically nods before opening the door and vanishing into the mid-afternoon crowds.

I might have turned down the best job of my career but it feels too easy, it would feel undeserved. But that’s not to say I’m not honoured by the offer. If it was a South American team only a short flight away, it would be possible. Maybe an Ecuador or a Bolivia. Even Peru if they decide the act on their supposed interest.

I digress. Wales, until another day.

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Operation: Z-Day (Episode 9 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

It’ll be hard to avoid his name in team sheet selections now.

Now I gave the media a bit of stick a few weeks back after they tried to pit Rangel and Morison against each other. So when they show up at the training ground, I’m hesitant to ask why but it turns out that it’s for a good cause. Gabby Gomez, our veteran captain, has been named the Primera A Player of the Month for February. Considering most teams played seven or eight games, he had a lot of competition. Teofilo Guterriez scored six goals for Junior, Jeison Lucumi scored three and assisted three from out wide for Nacional. But El Capitano fought them all away with his masterclasses in midfield that more than warrant the award. Seeing him hold his award as the camera flashes,  I shoot him a wink and leave him for his interview. Hopefully, this is the first of many for Bucaramanga.

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Even more good news as after this game against Patriotas Boyaco, we only have the one game a week. This gives us the flexibility to spread out training and give me more free time. I feel like it’s been non stop since the opening day against Pasto and all the travelling around Colombia has made me feel like ripping my hair out my skull at points. But, we’re over the hump and we’ve done exceptionally well so far so long may it continue.

Aguirre is the man in goal today and Jose Jaimes gets his first appearance for the club as he asked me to start this particular match. He comes in for Quintero with Morison and Rangel up front. It’s still a strong side elsewhere and I’m confident we can pick up another three points today.

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Patriotas have the first attempt of the match a couple minutes in when Echavarria controls a move before playing a switch that catches Salazar out after a few swift passes. Salazar tries to make up for his mistake by sliding in to either tackle or block Avila from progressing but he sends Kevin to the shop with a simple drag back. He pushes the ball forward onto his right and blasts a shot off the post. It takes us another 10 minutes to get a foothold and come back at them with a looping Salazar cross finding Jose Jaimes at the back post but he heads it a few yards over.

The deadlock is broken in the 27th minute when Salazar wins a corner and goes over to take it. He raises four fingers to signal a corner tactic in which all players run from the edge of the box. Kevin drills a ball into the front post when Rangel rises above three red shirts and power a header into the very top corner. I can’t help but shout with excitement as I jump up and throw a punch into the air. He’s finally broke his bloody duck and judging by his erratic leaps between steps, it means a lot to him. As his team-mates finish mobbing him, I tap my wrist roughly before giving him a big thumbs up. He flashes a grin my way as the game restarts.

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Patriotas don’t give up however as Harold is outdone by a simple 1-2 shortly after we take the lead. Torres does well to cover for him and force Osorio to shoot wide of the mark. The last chance of the half comes in the 42nd minute when a Rangel cross is headed as far as Jaimes. He volleys it forward to Gabby who hits a volley of his own into the face of Malagon. It’s nearly a vital one as it beats the goalkeeper but can only skim the far post and go out for a corner. Salazar aims for the penalty spot and the head of Steve Morison but it bounces off the shoulder a defender and flies past his face. It bounces up to Jaimes who touches the ball into his chest and flings his left peg high to twat a volley into the roof of the net. You really could not write it. A debut goal after asking for his chance and boy has he took it. The score at half-time is 2-0 and things couldn’t be going more swimmingly.

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The second half is a bit more back and forth but chances are of a limited supply. With half an hour left, Nunez and Rovira are brought on for the shattered Cardenas and Gomez. The armband is again passed to Steve Morison. The lull in play continues until the 69th minute when Benavidez surges forward and skins Salazar before offloading to Osorio. He’s completely free to touch and shoot from around 10 yards but Aguirre pulls out a great save to parry it away. Romero prepares to come on and the moment Rangel’s number is shown on the fourth official’s board, rapturous applause from the away end ensues. He’s slightly tearful as I pat him on the back and hand him his coat.

Once Romero takes the field, Torres boots a ball upfield to start a counter. Morison and Romero exchange possession before Rodriguez pings a pearler over for Romero who uses his pace to leave tired defenders in the dust. He enters the box and opens his body to curl a shot home but he can’t quite get all the whip needed as he rattles the post. Mosquera gets to the rebound first but tries a suicide pass back across the box that bounces up off the leg of Steve Morison. It neatly falls for Romero to strike on the turn but it’s straight into the keeper. Nunez was screaming for the cutback but it would have been hard for Sergio to make that call in a split second.

The game sizzles back down to it’s prior boredom and we take home another three points. Aguirre impressed me when called upon and Jaimes actually picked up Man of the Match. He completed every pass, tackle and dribble he attempted and he didn’t shy away from the ball either. Well played son, you’ve just put yourself into the mix for the rest of the season.

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Something which really takes me by surprise is the fact there’s an offer for Jhon Perez waiting in my voicemail. From Bundesliga side Hamburger SV. It’s a bit of a low ball from the Germans at just £710’000 but after a brief phone call, I manage to knock it up to £800’000 which is about £50’000 more than my lowest agreeable deal. This leaves it down to Perez to negotiate his contract and the offer of European football and a decent pay rise should get it over the line. Fingers crossed.

Morison comes to me wanting to start in hopes of carrying on his good from against Huila. I oblige but he will be the lone striker as my second creation is going to unveiled today. Commence ‘Operation: Z-Day’.

Operation: Z-Day is a variation of your standard 4-3-3 except the three in midfield are organised in a diagonal line. The three up top, the jagged midfield and back line form the shape of the letter ‘Z’. Hence the name Z-Day. Nunez and Quintero are the wingers and I’m intrigued to see how Quintero does. Ricardo has been urging me to try him out wide but I haven’t had the chance until now. Asprilla is on the bench for a injection of pace later on.

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It takes just under 10 minutes for the first chance to arise when Tipton flies down the touchline before placing a deep cross to Lopez. He puts it on a tee for Barreiro to smash a volley past Ramos and give them the lead. Ramos did get a touch on it but it was from point blank range so I can’t expect him to stop that.

Not long after the goal, Huila are coming forward again with Barreiro playing provider with a low cross in. A poor clearance from Harold stitches up Torres with Herrera pouncing to half volley into the ground. It’s an awkward bounce but Ramos gets a hand to it and after a mad scramble to deal with the back-spinning ball but it just goes wide. On the half hour mark, we finally get a chance of our own with Morison moving up and picking out the run on Quintero. He cuts back and waits for Cardenas to be borderline offside before playing a chip over for him to volley goalwards. The Huila keeper pushes away with his foot as its too central. Nunez looks destined to follow up and equalise but a last ditch slide from Berrio denies Maxi the chance to shoot.

A few minutes before the end of the first half, Huila are knocking the ball around beautifully with the final pass cutting through the back line. Diego Gomez hits the sweetest strike, cutting across the ball to give it enough swerve to come back inside and clip the inside of the near post to make it 2-0. Ramos was static as it was hit with so much venom, there was little use in diving for it. I do give them a bit of a stick in the changing rooms with my slowly improving Spanish but more in the disappointed father way.

We don’t step things up a gear as it’s Huila who have the first chance of the second half in the 58th minute. A deflected Herrera shot skims over to Lopez who forces an unreal save from Ramos to keep the scoreline respectable. It’s very similar to his last minute save against Junior, sprawling across the goal and flinging a strong hand in the way. In the 71st minute, I finally admit defeat as they ball sails out for a Bucaramanga goal kick and bring out Operation: Spearhead to try and salvage a result. Rovira, Asprilla and Romero all come on.

Not even a minute after the change, it appears to work perfectly as the goal kick is flicked on to Morison by Asprilla. The Huila defence are flat footed and Romero exposes them all as he peels behind to latch onto Morison’s ball over. He wastes no time in controlling and smashing it into the back of the net with his second touch of the game to make it 2-1. Comeback on?

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Comeback fucking on. A sloppy pass just seconds after Huila kick off is intercepted by Steve who again threads Romero through on goal. He runs it close to goal and shoots but the reflex jump of the trailing arm from Castillo just about clears the ball over the crossbar. The corner that comes in is a good one which Rovira meets, only to be cleared an inch away from crossing the line.

We don’t let up and really keep pushing for what would be a brilliant point but all our hard work comes undone as a Barriero cross enters our box. Gonzalez just can’t reach it with his head which leaves Diego Gomez an open goal to grab his brace and put any dreams of a comeback to bed. It’s heartbreaking as we were really coming into our own and troubling the Huila defence but alas, it’s 3-1 with five minutes to go.

Gomez gets a chance for his hat-trick with a minute left as he slides to meet a low ball but he can’t direct it goalwards with the game finishing shortly after. Huila have truly outclassed us today and had Romero’s second shot not been saved, it would have been our first thoroughly undeserved point of the season. We’ll probably get one at some point but right now, the pride of earning all the points we have is a big deal. And if we have to be pushed around on the odd occasion, so be it.

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Our next game against Rionegras Aguilas is our last until the 7th of April meaning we have a whole 3 weeks off before playing the under-performing America De Cali. They’re currently sat in 13th place and will most likely use that three weeks off to reset and come back to face us on a clean slate.

The debut of Operation: Z-Day was a mixed bag. There were some positives as I felt the width we were given was brilliant but considering our full backs usually provide the width with their supporting runs, we were prone to being understaffed at the back. It needs to be revised before we can use it again so we’re back to our ol’ reliable 4-1-2-1-2. It’s only really dawned on me that we don’t have a cool name for our usual shape and I’d hate for it to feel excluded.

Operation: Diamond. Simple, rolls off the tongue. So, our return to Operation: Diamond allows Quinones to get his first start under my management with Cufre and Vallecilla as the wing backs. Mojica is another fringe player who gets the nod in front of Cardenas and Quintero, with Nunez alongside Rangel as a striker. He’s played very well as a striker when called upon so I decide to throw him top with the newly confident Rangel and see how they work together.

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We get off to a promising start when a high ball is nodded down by Quintero to Mojica. He’s completely unmarked around 25 yards out so he waits for it to settle before trying to whip a shot round into the top right and he isn’t far away as it bounces of the pole behind the goal that’s holding the net upright.

We keep up a high level of intensity and by the 20th minute, we’re really in control. We’re passing around the outside Aguilas box for a short while and Nunez gets himself tangled with the ball underneath his feet. He does manage to get a shot off that beats the keeper but hits the woodwork. Luckily, Cardenas is there to tap home the rebound for his first goal since pre-season to make it 1-0. It’s only another 5 minutes before we double our lead when a recently cautioned Vallecilla takes a throw in about level with the Rionegros 18 yard box. Nunez passes it to Quintero who deftly flicks a cross into the middle for Rangel to leap and squeeze a header the right side of the woodwork. He couldn’t score for toffee and now he’s scored twice in his last two. Let’s pray the floodgates have opened for his sake.

There’s only one chance of note before half time that just prefaces the whistle as Cufre runs half the length of the pitch before playing it into the centre. Nunez connects with a volley as he stumbles back but the keeper is at full stretch to push it round the post. The corner isn’t taken as the ref blows for half-time. With everything going according to plan, a stark contrast to this point in our previous game, no changes are made to either tactics or personnel.

In the 58th minute, Vallecilla does well to shield ball out wide before cutting back to Quintero. Cesar manoeuvres through the midfield until Cardenas is open on the edge of the box to aim for the bottom right but Valencia gets down to save. Asprilla replaces the average Mojica in attacking midfield. My remaining two subs come on quarter of an hour later with Marlon Torres covering at right back and Jose Jaimes taking to the field in a defensive set up.

Or so you’d think. Asprilla bursts away into the Rionegros half and waits to thread a ball in for Nunez. It’s got slightly too much on it so Maxi drags it wide and lays it off for Torres to put a peach of a cross into the middle for who else but the 6’4 frame of Jose Jaimes to plant a header off the underside of the bar and into the back of the net for our third. You couldn’t write it, the impact he’s having on the Bucaramanga faithful. 2 goals in as many appearances and contributing all over the pitch. It’ll be hard to avoid his name in team sheet selections now.

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As is the story with our season so far, there always has to be a negative towards the end to dampen all the good vibes. In the 84th minute, Franco weights a pass between Palacios and Cufre. Our defensive line are all bunched up and confusion ensues. Arango squares across to Mauricio Gomez who puts his laces through the ball without any real consideration for direction. It’s flying straight into the right leg of Ramos until he slides towards the ball, effectively dodging it and giving it an unchallenged path into the middle of the goal. I have no idea what he was thinking and I have no intention of mentioning it. Maybe if I avoid the issue as much as Ramos avoids his clean sheets, it’ll all vanish into thin air. Regardless, the game has no further shots and ends as a reverse of our previous game: a 3-1 win.

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Once I finally get home to my quirky little Piso 18 flat, I collapse exhausted onto my bed. Only to be rudely awakened by a knock of the door minutes later. I open the door to greet Jhon Perez and Oscar Alvarez. Jhon has agreed personal terms with Hamburg and will be ending his fourth spell at Bucaramanga on July 1st. Alvarez decides to take along to inform me that only £550’000 of his fee will be made available for transfers. The missing quarter of a million is Oscar’s ‘fair’ chunk as compensation for the whole youth scout extravaganza. It’s understandable as of right now but truthfully, I can’t wait for the day when we have talent coming out of our arse and he has to admit he was wrong. I’m already practicing my ‘I told you so’ grin.

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Building Speed (Episode 8 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

Maybe I have to be a twat sometimes.

“You’re right, it is working but could something else work better?” The questions hangs in the air for a moment before Ricardo answers by proposing another question.

“Does it need to change? Is there any reason for it to change or is it just taking a step back?” It’s a tough question to answer. Despite that valiant display at Junior and positive showing against Tolima, I can’t help but feel like we’re one cog turn away from it. What ‘it’ is, I do not know but we’re within reach. One more turn of the wrench and we’ll be it, we’ll have it. We’re right there but I can’t figure out what we need to do to get it. I slump back into my chair and pop open the bottle of whiskey next to me. Extending a half filled glass to my assistant, we clink glasses and let the burning sensation explore our mouths before lighting up my throat.

“Fuck me” I cough painfully. “That’s fucking lighter fluid Ricky, what are you playing at?” He chuckles to himself before finishing his own glass and lifting me out of my chair to escort me home. Maybe he’s right and no tinkering is needed. It’s working for now but I’ll continue behind closed doors to try and crack it. He can’t stop me there, no matter how much WD-40 he puts down my neck.

Now then, Jaguares. One of the three other teams in the league who also have 9 points but their record is split 50/50 with three wins and three losses. They also have a -3 goal difference after a few high scoring losses to the big boys so a win here would really help make a gap between ourselves and them.

Marlon Torres and Cufre are back into the mix with Jeferson Torres also getting a chance to impress in the midfield. Rolls Royce are leading the line again and in an attempt to encourage some friendly competition for places, fringe players such as Mojica and Filigrana are on the bench.

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You know those games of football where the entire 90 minutes blend together into one or two notable moments, a break somewhere around the middle and a sense of gratefulness when the final whistle blows, regardless of the result? This was one of the games. The first half  has next to no interesting areas except a Cufre cross finding Rangel after a deflection but his header goes a couple yards over. The second half carries the complete dull numb feeling as nothing happens until there’s only quarter of an hour left. Some slow build up play from the Bucaramanga boys let’s Rangel peel away and be released down the near side by Jeferson Torres. He cuts back onto his stronger foot and attempts to slot Salazar in but Castillo gets there first. Luckily, he fluffs his clearance as it bounces off the shin of Salazar directly to Romero who wastes no time in smashing it over the shoulder of the goalkeeper to give us the lead.

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Vallecilla, Filigrana and Mojica are all subbed on in the remaining time but the game doesn’t break free from it’s own self-inflicted shackles as it uneventfully grinds to a halt. It was boring, it wasn’t pretty but we got another three points and that’s all that matters.

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Those same three points take us into double digits with us now sitting on 12 points. That’s just over half the points available to us so far which is a record I’m quietly pleased about. If we take just over half the total points up for grabs across the Apetura, we’d be sitting around the 30 mark and considering 29 points was enough to seal 8th place for Bucaramanga in last season’s Apetura, I’d fancy our chances of advancing to the knockout stages.

And what better time to further boost our chances of a knockout spot with a game against winless Boyaca Chico. That being said, the only team worse than them is Leones who held us to a draw but my point still stands. Another win today would move us up to fourth for a couple days and while that prospect is mouthwatering to myself, there’s a huge game elsewhere which will dominate the media attention as Junior host Deportivo Cali in a top of the table clash. Both teams are unbeaten and will want to keep that record in tact so it’ll be interesting to see who comes out on top.

Now while the TV cameras aren’t looking at us right now, picking up points is always a way we can force ourselves into the limelight. I want to task our two target men in Rangel and Morison with getting us the goals today as they both start up top together. Aguirre gets a shot in goal as he hasn’t played in a long time and we need him match ready in case the ageing bones of Ramos or Delgado aren’t 100%. Vallecilla’s also starting as he’s done fairly well when called upon so far. Jhon Perez is a player who really hasn’t impressed me during his limited game time yet and with his contract ending in December, he has to prove to me why he deserves a renewal sooner rather than later. He plays behind the big men.

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It takes 25 minutes for the deadline to be broken when Vallecilla thumps a Chico ball clear to Gomez. Morison just stays onside as Gabby curls a ball down the line for him. Steve beautifully half volleys a cross into the mixer and Rangel rises high to meet it with his head but he hits the post. We keep the pressure on Los Ajedrezados though and manage to win a corner. Cardenas puts a perfect ball into the centre for Gabby to leap and power home with his forehead. It’s a great header from the captain to give us the lead as he made sure nobody was stopping that, aiming for the side netting.

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10 minutes later, a Cardenas ball makes Rangel battle with Tapia but he comes out on top and finds the head of Morison with a cross but it’s a poor attempt that flies a yard over the crossbar. Steve shouts in frustration as he knows that should be at least on target. He makes it for it not even 2 minutes later when a replica of the previous move takes place. The Cardenas ball, the Rangel battle and cross. Except Morison decides to meet this cross with an exquisite glancing header than clips against the inside of the far post before nestling into the back of the net. After celebrating with the team, he looks to me and flashes a wink my way before chasing down the ball following kick off. The silver haired fox strikes again.

Half-time arrives and it’s a routine ‘same again’ affair. Chico haven’t even looked like threatening so I’m pretty confident we can do the same for another 45 minutes and come out with the clean sheet that has eluded me this far into the league.

After the first six or seven minutes of the first half, I’m sleepily settling down into my seat to watch my team effortlessly hold possession and see the game out to a 2-0 win. But when Vallecilla nutmegs a Chico midfielder before pacing away from another, I sit up in my seat. His cross is headed out by Monroy but Gabby leaps up to head the ball back into the box. It bounces to around chest height as it reaches Steve Morison but is he fazed? Does he resign to the fact that he can’t possibly get anything on the ball at that height? Of course he doesn’t. Steve laughs in the face of adversary, throwing all 200 pounds of his body into the air and connecting with a flying scissor kick that floats straight into the top right. I leap up and nearly knock myself unconscious on the roof of the subs bench but I battle through the pain to applaud the Welshman. What a stunning goal to put this game to bed, even this early on. 3-0, Morison brace. Dream land.

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With 25 minutes left, Nunez and Jimenez replace Gomez and Perez. Jhon didn’t play badly today but he also didn’t play well. Very, very mediocre and being mediocre isn’t gonna break you into this team. About 10 minutes pass when Jimenez tries to pass the ball out of our box but its bounces to Jossymar Gomez. He runs it wide and passes it into the box for Valdes who turns and gets his shot off over the leg of Torres and into the top corner. We’ve thrown away yet another clean sheet and while I don’t see our opponents coming back to press for a point, I bring on Rovira for Cardenas and ask the team to defend for the last 15 minutes which they do without any real trouble. The game finishes 3-1 and while it’s our best performance to date, the clean sheet issue needs to be addressed. The team walk back in, cheerful and patting each other’s backs but I remain steely faced and give them a bit of a bollocking. After a solid victory, it might seem unnecessary but so is conceding a goal when you’re controlling a game 3-0 up. I can tell I’ve pissed some people off but maybe I have to be a twat sometimes. I might not be the twat this club wants, but I’ll be damned if I’m not the twat this club needs.

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It seems like the media have bucked up their ideas as Morison receives particular well deserved praise in the papers the next morning. Morison and his brace earned him his first Man of the Match award in a Bucaramanga shirt and there’s even a section highlighting the potential partnership between himself and Rangel. They played off each other well and it’s good to know that a Rangel/Morison partnership is an option. We just need Michael to find the back of the net and we’ll be unstoppable.

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Speaking of unstoppable, Junior won their fixture 2-1 meaning they are the last unbeaten team. Currently, we’re the only team to take anything from them and we did it in their own back yard. I make sure to remind the lads of that in training because if we manage our third win in a row, we’ll be keeping pace with them too. Santa Fe are the visiting side today and being only a point behind us, stamping them down the table with a victory would be lovely.

It’s basically our strongest side lining up today with Ramos and Torres starting. Morison is the man dropped to the bench as I really want Rangel to get off the mark. He understands and begrudgingly submits to his place on the bench. Santa Fe striker Wilson Morelo is the man leading their 4-1-4-1 formation today and after taking the match ball home last time out, he’ll be confident in front of goal again today I imagine.

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Not even 5 minutes in, a good switch from Cardenas lands nicely at the feet of Harold Gomez and he plays it forward to Quintero. One more pass up for Salazar allows him to spin and pass along to Rangel. He lays it off for Cardenas about 20 yards out who laces a shot through the legs of Giraldo but Castellanos gets across his goal quickly to palm away for a corner. Unfortunately, it’s a poor one that leads to a Santa Fe counter but Gabby Gomez does well to break it down with a string of tackles.

In the 18th minute, Sergio Romero goes up for a header in the centre circle and takes a while getting to his feet holding that same bloody shoulder. Surely, that thing must be made of fucking fiberglass. I’m debating whether to leave him on as he was fine the last couple times but when he slides in and picks up a silly yellow, I signal for Morison to start warming up. He comes off shortly after and has a bit of a sulk but I can’t justify leaving a half injured, cautioned liability on the field for 70 minutes.

Quarter of an hour after Morison’s first touch, Giraldo is bombing into our half with Cufre stuck between tracking the runner behind him or closing him down. His indecisiveness is exposed as a weighted ball is put down the line for Carboleda. Braian can’t get there quick enough and his first time cross is behind most of the runners but Seijas arrives on the edge to tap it forward for Morelo to whip a shot into the bottom left from 8 yards. A lethal counter attack  from Santa Fe and we’re 1-0 down despite being on top for the first half an hour.

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It doesn’t take us long to get ourselves back into the match as it’s only 3 minutes after Santa Fe take the lead when we equalise. Gabby Gomez picks up the ball around 10 yards into the Santa Fe half and looks for a give and go with Salazar. Kevin opts for a different option however, offloading to Cardenas. His ball is drilled into Morison who hits it first time through the legs of Lopez and almost through the legs of Moya. If it went straight through, it would have been a relatively comfortable save for the keeper but the ball clips the back of Moya’s calf muscle, redirecting the ball towards the near post. Santa Fe can only watch as their keeper collapses to his right and the ball trickles past his foot to make it 1-1. It’s a bit of luck but we’re entitled to a bit of luck every now and then.

Half-time comes and goes and the first 20-25 of the second half are pass by with the same effect, both sides looking hesitant to commit to any attacks. I bring Nunez and Rovira on for Cardenas and Salazar in hopes that some fresher players in the middle will spur us forward. It almost backfires instantly as a deep cross from Seijas catches Rovira out. Ardoleda outjumps him to put it on a plate for Morelo but Ramos spreads himself well and blocks the effort from point blank range with his chest. That a boy Ramos, that a boy.

With 10 minutes left, it’s looking the spoils are going to be shared with both ourselves and Santa Fe standing resolute at the back. But, when Palacios clips a ball beautifully over the head of sub striker Valencia, the play seems to open up. Gabby takes the ball from him and sees the Santa Fe right back being dragged central, leaving Nunez wide open to receive a pass. Lopez sprints over to cover as Maxi sets himself but it’s too late. His thunderous shot, originally destined for the bottom left, takes a cruel deflection of the instep of the centre back’s foot but maintains it’s venom. As the ball soars into the top right, I can’t help but feel guilty when I leap up and hug Ricardo. Both of our goals have been borderline disgusting but there is no question that we have been the better team and deserving of a 2-1 lead.

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Santa Fe heads can’t seem to raise again and they pretty much let us pass it around to see the game out. Rangel has a couple potshots blocked in added time and his desperation is really starting to show. It’s been almost 700 minutes of football since he found the back of the net and I can’t help but think a penalty or deflected strike of his own would mean the world to him right now. On the bright side, we’re on a roll with our third straight win and we couldn’t have done it without the leadership of Gomez who put in a true captains performance. He was brilliant at both ends of the pitch, breaking down or starting attacks.

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The final whistle of that game means finally battled through what’s been a long, grueling February in which we’ve played 7 games. 14 points out of a possible 21 for the month and 18 points altogether is not bad going at all considering we’ve played Junior, Nacional, Deportivo Cali and Santa Fe. We’re playing some solid football, scoring a few goals and are currently smack bank in middle of the knockout spots, occupying fourth place. Happy days.

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The 2nd of each month is the day that our youth scout comes back to me with a list of potential stars (hopefully) but while I wait for his arrival, I call Jhon Perez into my office. Funds are ridiculously tight and I want to get some deals sorted in the summer window. Jhon is the only player I don’t need, don’t want and we physically own that’s worth any sort of substantial fee. If you’re clever enough, you’ll realise that the meeting is to inform Jhon he is now transfer listed. I was going to wait a little longer but with his contract ending this year, I want to list him now and see if some club wants to take him in time for the Clasura so we can get some money for him. If it reaches July and we don’t have a deal sorted, any deal from that point will most likely be a Bosman rule deal between himself and prospective clubs. Which means no transfer fee and a player we won’t use on our books until next season. It does mean that he needs to be advertised to potential buyers so I make sure to emphasise that putting in the graft and showcasing himself over the next few months can only be beneficial for both him and the club. Ricardo valued him around the million mark in January so I’m expecting around £750’000 for him if an offer does come in. Fingers crossed.

Shortly after, Gallardo comes back with a slight skip in his step which prompts me to think he has an array of young talented Colombian’s for me to drool over. But skimming through his report, it’s disappointing. There’s nobody who really jumps out. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a couple lads who could be decent players but we don’t want decent. More importantly, Alvarez doesn’t want decent. He wants the next James Rodriguez, the next Falcao, the next Valderrama. I look up in disappointment but Lisandro’s postive vibe doesn’t waver.

“I have to ask” I say as I close the file. “What are you so excited about? All of these seem okay but okay isn’t good enough. And okay shouldn’t make a top scout this…happy.”

Lisandro smirks as he pulls a smaller file from under the desk and slides it across the table.

“Andreas Neumann. 17 year old, German. Centre forward who is making waves over in Europe. He’s got the potential Shep, I promise you. I heard about him through a few friends in the network and he’s desperate for a chance in any first team.” He leans closer and stares directly into my eyes while tapping the file. “Anywhere.”

His file is impressive. Andreas has been ripping up the semi-pro leagues in Germany and has had scouts from clubs like Hoffenheim and Everton snooping around. That’s enough convincing for me so I get in touch with Andreas and his parents sharpish. I explain to them that while a professional contract isn’t the offer today, he will signed up to the first team after a month or so. I spent all that money knocking up some youth facilities and Andreas would act as a guinea pig to test them all out before getting his reward of first team football. Also, signing him up fully would leave us with literal pennies in the bank and an even more pissed off chairman. But, at least I have something to show to him now. Andreas Neumann, you may think the Primera A isn’t the most glamorous of leagues to start your career in but trust me when I say it’s an experience. It will provide you with qualities you didn’t think you could obtain, give you a test to see if you can not only make the continental switch but if you can own it. And most importantly, it will nurture you into a footballer. And, with my guidance, a bloody good one at that.

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